Holly MacKenzie - Raptors.com
The Toronto Raptors wasted little time shaking things up heading into the All-Star Break. With next Thursday’s trade deadline looming, Masai Ujiri completed a deal to immediately upgrade the Raptors at the power forward position, acquiring Serge Ibaka from the Orlando Magic in exchange for Terrence Ross and a future first-round pick.
“First of all, with plenty of respect, I want to wish Terrence all the best,” Ujiri said. “I saw that kid grow from the day we got the job here to where he is now. It really is remarkable to see where he has come. I do believe the best of his basketball is ahead of him and I thank him for all of the great memories he gave us. [We watched him] actually became a real professional and a big part of our ball club. We wish Terrence the best of luck. In terms of Serge, we’re happy to have a player of his calibre. We’ve kind of looked for this kind of player for awhile. I think he gives our team a good boost, where we are right now, we’ll see what it brings us. We welcome Serge.”
The Raptors are thrilled to have Ibaka, who spent the first seven seasons of his career with the Oklahoma City Thunder. He has been named to the NBA All-Defensive First team three times in addition to leading the league in blocks in four consecutive seasons (2010-14, and his abilities on both ends of the floor will benefit Toronto.
Toronto has searched for consistency at the power forward position this season as injuries to Jared Sullinger and Patrick Patterson forced Dwane Casey and his staff to mix and match lineups. Ibaka was traded to the Orlando Magic in a draft day trade in June 2016 and averaged 15.1 points, 6.8 rebounds, 1.6 blocks and 30.5 minutes in 56 games (all starts) for the Magic this season. He is shooting 49-percent from the floor and a career-best 39-percent from the three-point line.
The previous 24 hours have been a whirlwind for Ibaka. Receiving the news of the trade and explaining it to his 11-year-old daughter who will remain in Orlando for school, Ibaka flew to Toronto and then had a day filled with meetings as well as going through his physical. Despite the physical and emotional fatigue, he is excited to be in Toronto.
“I have an opportunity to play for a great team, a great organization and great city so I'm very excited,” Ibaka said.
“A team like this, I'm just going to try to bring my experience and my defensive game, my toughness, my energy. Because when you have guys like Kyle [Lowry] and DeMar [DeRozan] you don't need an offensive, scoring guy really, you need a guy who can bring some physicality and defensive plays, energy, running up and down. Those are the things I'm really going to bring.”
Ibaka also brings valuable postseason experience to the Raptors locker room having played in the NBA Finals in 2012, as well as in the Western Conference Finals four times with Oklahoma City.
“Experience is huge,” Casey said. “Guys have been there before. Our young guys are going through that. Jakob [Poeltl], Pascal [Siakam], early in the season, first time you see something. You know it’s a shock to the system where a guy like Serge has seen everything, he’s experienced everything. He’s been to the finals. That experience in itself is huge and the more we can get that type of experience around Kyle and DeMar and some of our younger guys, it’s a huge, huge plus.”
Getting a player of Ibaka’s calibre comes at a price. For Toronto, it meant having to part with Ross, drafted by the team with the eighth overall pick in the 2012 NBA Draft. Ross was playing his best basketball in his fifth season, steadily growing into the potential the front office saw when they drafted him. Like Ujiri, Casey had fond words for Ross, speaking with a smile as he discussed one of the harder parts in the business of professional sports.
“I watched him grow,” Casey said. “I met with him, I went to his room and talked to him once the trade was made and it was tough. When he first came in he was playing video games, staying up all night, not eating right. He had a stomach ache one exhibition game. He would have started and he couldn't go that night because he had a stomach ache.
“Just watching the young man grow from a young boy to a man and take pride in that and to grow into a father, that's what this position is about, having those relationships, growing the players. Watching Terrence grow was a beautiful thing. Unfortunately he's going to go to Orlando and I think he's still going to continue to improve and get better as we saw him do here, physically, mentally and his game is going to evolve.”
While Ibaka will be getting to know his Raptors teammates, he has a couple of familiar faces on the coaching staff. Rex Kalamian was an assistant coach with Ibaka in Oklahoma City, and he is also close with assistant Patrick Mutombo. Ibaka and Ujiri have history as well, working together with Basketball without Borders.
“[Ibaka knows] Rex, and also, too, he’s good friends with Patrick Mutombo,” Casey said. “He’s very familiar with Masai, he’s got a relationship with him. We tried to kick his butt as much as we could when I was in Dallas and he was in OKC. It’s a small league when it comes to relationships. But it’s always good to have a guy like Rex who has coached him and been in the trenches and knows how he reacts under pressure in certain situations.”
Ujiri complimented Ibaka’s competitiveness, saying he is a warrior when he steps onto the floor. Although there will be a period of adjustment as he gets used to a new system, Ibaka is excited for the opportunity in front of him. He also doesn’t consider the pressure of being a key acquisition to be a bad thing.
“It's always pressure in sport,” he said. “Even where I come from, Orlando was pressure. [We were losing] but was a lot of pressure. And it was a lot of pressure since Day 1 in Orlando, and it's going to be always pressure, but I think those pressures make us better. Without pressure, I'm not going to wake up every day to go work, or do extra shot, or lifting. I do those kinds of things, because I know I have pressure on my back. So that's going to make us better.”
6IX SERGE FACTS
- Serge was selected 24th overall by the Seattle Supersonics in their final season before relocating to Oklahoma City.
- He speaks four languages: Lingala, French, Spanish and English.
- His full name is Serge Jonas Ibaka Ngobila and he is the third-youngest of 18 children.
- He was born in the Republic of the Congo, but holds dual citizenship and has officially represented Spain in international competition. His parents both played for the National Team in the Congo.
- He wore jersey #9 in Oklahoma City to honour his father. He wore #7 in Orlando to honour his mother. In Toronto, Ibaka is slated to wear #9.
- He has pledged $135,000 to the UNICEF Get Boys and Girls in the Game project for the renovation and expansion of two orphanages in his hometown of Brazzaville, Congo.