Ibaka, Thunder Excited About Extension

It all started in 2008, when Serge Ibaka made a decision to play in Europe for an extra season in order to be more prepared for the NBA.

The next step came a year later when Ibaka played three minutes in his rookie debut in Detroit, and now, the Congolese forward has solidified himself as a key part of the Thunder organization. On Monday at the Boys & Girls Club of Oklahoma City, Ibaka, Thunder General Manager Sam Presti and Head Coach Scott Brooks gladly announced a contract extension for the 22-year old, 2011-12 NBA All-Defensive Team member.

“Serge has since taken those (three) minutes and earned his way to being an integral, core member for this team and a committed citizen to this community,” Presti said. “He has earned our trust, but he’s always had our belief. We couldn’t be more thrilled for him.”

While playing in Spain for CB L’Hospaitalet in 2007-08, Ibaka was drafted by the Thunder with the 24th overall selection in the 2008 draft. Instead of immediately coming over to the United States, Ibaka and the Thunder decided that he should play in Spain for one more season, this time for Ricoh Manresa. Presti lauded Ibaka’s foresight to understand that instead of coming to the NBA immediately, he could hone his skills in Spain for one more year.

When Ibaka finally did make the trek across the Atlantic Ocean to join the NBA, he hardly spoke any English, but joined a professional organization and family atmosphere in the Thunder that helped him find his way. Because of his own hard work and the Thunder’s assistance, Ibaka realized that committing to stay in Oklahoma City for the foreseeable future was the right move for him.

“When I got here in the NBA, I was thinking my first year, the most important thing is to stay with this team after my rookie year,” Ibaka said. “We started this way together, we’ve come a long way. My teammates, my coaches, all the staff, the organization, everybody. For me I was thinking it was important for me to stay and finish what we started.”

Although four seasons ago when the Thunder drafted Ibaka, the team did not make the NBA Playoffs, every season since then the team has improved as a unit.

So has Ibaka. He has done so by working with assistant coach Mark Bryant in the paint on offense and defense and with the Thunder coaching staff with coaching on his shooting and passing. Where he has been particularly impressive, however, is in the weight room and with the Thunder’s training staff as he has committed to keeping his overall fitness at a high level.

“Serge doesn’t work out, he trains,” Presti said.

With that attitude, Ibaka fits right in with the Thunder culture. Over the course of the four years the Thunder has been in Oklahoma City, players like Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and Nick Collison have helped define the internal standards for work ethic within the team. According to Presti, Ibaka has helped solidify those standards thanks to his competitiveness and daily efforts.

“When you find incredibly highly competitive people and the disciplined work ethic that he has, they’re often those highly performing people,” Presti said.” He gets to a level of competitiveness on a daily basis that not a lot of people can get to. I think that’s an important trait, because it’s not easy.”

As a result, it should be no shock to Thunder fans how seriously Ibaka takes his craft. Whether it’s spending hours after practice knocking down extra mid-range jumpers, working in the post with Bryant or hitting the weight room, Ibaka has sharp focus in his attempts to improve daily.

“He’s a serious player, and that means a lot of different things,” Presti said. “How he takes care of himself and his body. He studies, he cares genuinely about understanding his performance.”

Competitiveness can manifest itself in a variety of ways. For Brooks, who has seen Ibaka transform from a non-English speaker to one who communicates well on and off the court with teammates, Ibaka’s consistency is crucial. Brooks, in his fifth season at the helm of the Thunder, said that a coach can tell a lot about a player by how they respond in practice the day after bad games and after great games.

“Failure is not an option with Serge,” Brooks said. “You can go into the gym the next day and you don’t know if he had a bad game or a good game the night before, because he’s consistent. I think that’s a great trademark that he has and our team has.”

Unsurprisingly, when asked about what he plans to do now that he knows he’ll be in Oklahoma City for a while, Ibaka pointed first to the work he will put in. From beginning his career simply appearing in 73 games as a rookie to starting all 66 games last season, Ibaka has already made strides. He believes, however, that he can help his team even more as he continues to improve.

“First of all I will just keep working hard and getting better,” Ibaka said. “It starts with whatever my team needs from me.”