Through Hard Work, Ibaka Emerging as All-Around Weapon
Sergeballu LaMu Sayonga Loom Walahas Jonas Hugo Ibaka entered the NBA as a mostly unknown 18-yearold Congolese forward whose raw athleticism was astounding, but basketball fundamentals needed work.
Thanks to his hard work over the past four years and the help of the Thunder basketball staff, the now 22-year-old Serge Ibaka is a household name because of his defensive prowess and emerging offensive skills. With a penchant for blocking shots, Ibaka was named to the NBA’s All Defensive First Team last season, an amazing and far position from the one he was in growing up in the Congo. For him to look back now on where he came from and what his life has become, Ibaka is in awe.
“It’s crazy,” Ibaka said. “It’s like a movie. I don’t know about other people here and their story and their start, but mine, it’s not possible. If you could put this image back in the day when I was growing up, if it was possible to put that image there, you’d see my life and where I started, and then to come here, it’s like a movie.”
As a result of the difficult circumstances of his childhood, Ibaka understood from an early age the importance of hard work, determination and dedication to a goal. For the third-youngest of 18 siblings, it was the struggle that sparked his imagination and provided him the strength to turn his far-fetched dream into a reality.
“It starts with where I come from and it’s not easy to get here,” Ibaka said. “I started putting in a lot of work when I was younger. I started dreaming. … My goal was to play professional basketball. I would spend my time working hard on basketball and thinking about basketball.”
The work ethic that Ibaka showed to improve his craft from his days in Africa to playing professionally in Spain did not diminish in the slightest once he was drafted with the 24th overall selection in the 2008 NBA Draft. With the long view in mind, Ibaka and the Thunder agreed it would be prudent for him to spend an extra year in Spain before coming to the United States -– a move that showed Ibaka’s sincere desire to get better.
As General Manager Sam Presti said, “Serge doesn’t work out, he trains.”
“He’s definitely diligent,” Thunder Head Coach Scott Brooks said. “He works every day. There are no days off for Serge. We have to force him to take a day off. He’s one of the many guys that come back at night and get extra shots, get extra work in. He comes early, stays after. Those are things that we love about him and love about our team. He’s consistent. That guy is as consistent, as the rest of our guys are and he’s driven. He’s mentally tough and he’s focused on doing it every day.”
This preseason, Ibaka has shown on the floor where that hard work has materialized, in multiple facets of his game. Perhaps the most lauded thus far has been his ability to knock down mid-range jump shots. For a 6-foot-10, shot-blocking presence to be able to spread the floor and convert high-efficiency shots is a prized tool for the Thunder to use in its offense. For point guard Russell Westbrook, Ibaka’s range makes his driving lanes look like Oklahoma highways.
“It opens the paint up,” Westbrook said. “For him being able to knock that shot down, the big has to guard him. They can’t leave him open. If they leave him open I’ll just pass it to him and he’ll make an easy shot. If not, it gives me the opportunity to get to the basket and finish at the rim.”
An incredible part about Ibaka is the humility he shows when presented with statements from coaches or teammates about his abilities. After Westbrook described just how dynamic the offense can be with Ibaka’s mid-range jumper, the long, springy forward was honored to hear a teammate simply say that he is an asset in helping the team improve.
“Most of the time I think how it can be good for our team,” Ibaka said. “If Russell says that, that’s good. That’s my point guard and he says that, that gives me more motivation to keep working. Also my focus is just to keep working, get better and see what happens. It’s not just about to be dangerous, I’m just getting better. I know that if I keep working, everything with come naturally.”
The point guard has many jobs, and Westbrook’s choices of kicking out to Ibaka or attacking the rim himself are two great ones, when he can beat his man off the dribble. There are times, however, during the course of every game, where the half-court offense is stopped in its initial play call, and must go to a different option.
Ibaka and other Thunder bigs have been working tirelessly with assistant coach Mark Bryant on the block each day after practice to develop low-post moves. When those offensive plays break down, it’s always a great choice to pitch the ball into the lane to a high percentage shooter with the athleticism to finish over others. To Ibaka, his improved post play is just a sign of his general maturation and the expansion of his duties.
“When I first got here, my job was just running the floor, rebounding, the pick-and-roll and blocking shots,” Ibaka said. “I’m starting my fourth year and it’s a process. Especially me, I didn’t really have a chance to play fundamental basketball when I was young, so I’m starting to play right now and I’m older. So it’s been a process for me. I will just keep working.”
His head coach would tend to agree, and the process-based approach is one that has tested well over time for the Thunder basketball operations staff, and the players on the practice floor. Kevin Durant and Westbrook came before Ibaka in the Thunder development machine with general improvements, and Brooks sees similar strides being made in Ibaka’s overall game.
“We take pride in developing our players and making them better players every year,” Brooks said. “The majority of the credit goes to the player. Our coaches do a good job of developing and working with our guys and having a plan and executing that plan. With Serge, he’s a terrific player. He’s a defensive force, but he’s a developing offensive player. His hands are much improved. His instincts are much improved. His shooting has always been really good. And his range, obviously that’s improved.”
For Ibaka, that praise is nice to hear, but as he described when hearing Westbrook’s comments, more motivation than satisfaction. Positive reinforcement can be a powerful thing for an NBA player like Ibaka, who sees each accomplishment or compliment as a sign that more can be done. As a result, Ibaka heads into this season hoping to attack his weakness – whether it be not fouling on defense as a shot-blocker or playing with firmer team-defensive principles.
“When I first came here, nobody expected me to be an NBA player-type,” Ibaka said. “To not expect me to be an NBA-type to then being All-First Team Defense, that’s a lot. I still have a lot of stuff to work on. It’s a process for me to keep getting better and better.”