Ibaka Learning Nuances on Both Ends of Court

Heading into his second NBA season, Serge Ibaka’s priorities haven’t changed.

“My first objective is to play defense and I think my offensive game is coming after my good defense,” Ibaka said. “Every time, I try to be better first on defense. I know that if I’m better with my defense, my offense will come, too. So that’s why my first focus is defense.”

But what Ibaka has continued to learn is how to be most effective on either end of the court.

The 6-10 forward from the Republic of Congo gained quite a following during a rookie season in which he energized the Thunder off the bench with his high-flying athleticism, nonstop hustle and shot blocking skills.

Through six preseason games we’ve seen more of the same from Ibaka, who has remained a rotation player ever since the first month of his rookie season, although the areas of improvement Ibaka focused on during the offseason have become evident.

While Ibaka has developed an affinity for shot blocking, he has also begun to realize that he doesn’t have to block ever shot that comes his way.

“Last year I tried to block every shot and sometimes it’s not necessary because my teammates help on defense,” Ibaka said.

Ibaka went on to explain through his much improved English how there were times last season when he tried to block a shot and failed, which led to second-chance opportunities for the opponent.

“So I just have to be ready to box out,” Ibaka said. “Stuff like that I know I can do better this year so I just keep working all the time.”

Head coach Scott Brooks said he’s seen Ibaka become more selective in the shots he blocks and has seen continued improvements in his rebounding and court awareness as well, but that those are skills the second-year forward must continue to hone.

Brooks keeps things simple on the offensive end for Ibaka. First and foremost, he wants Ibaka to finish strong at the rim, which is something he cannot rely solely on his athleticism for; hence, Ibaka dedicated part of his offseason development program to building more muscle.

Ibaka has also shown an improved midrange jump shot throughout the preseason, something Brooks pointed out was evident last season.

“I had confidence in it last year I have confidence this year,” Brooks said. “He just has to get better at shot selections. Every pass is not a shot, but he’s improving on that.”

Ibaka has shot those midrange jumpers with confidence this preseason, whether it’s from the foul-line extended or short corner. Ibaka said he worked on his jump shot every day during the summer.

While he might have added to his skill set in that regard, Ibaka is always quick to explain where his focus lies.

“Coach has given me confidence to shoot the ball and my teammates have, too,” he said. “(But) I just try to focus first on defense, and that gives me more confidence on offense.”

Ibaka has continued to show potential, but Brooks dispelled any notion that the versatile forward is either ahead of the learning curve or right where he should be.

“I don’t put ceiling on any of the players so I don’t know where they’re going to end up,” Brooks said.

Contact Chris Silva