When he first entered the NBA as a 20-year old, most people probably viewed Serge Ibaka peaking as a menace of a shot blocker and a volume rebounder. But he is certainly not just that any more. The evolution of his individual skill-set season after season is a huge testament to both his work ethic and the Oklahoma City Thunder’s player development program.
In his sixth season, Ibaka has completed the expansion of his scoring zone. He’s gone from proving capable of hitting the eventual long-two when left open in his first year, to now taking over a quarter of his shots from three-point range, and with 80.7% of such shots from above the break. Ibaka quickly developed into one of the league’s very best mid-range shooters by his third season, and it makes sense that the Thunder have attempted to extract the most value out of this skill by expanding his range, selectively sending him to the corner these previous two seasons and now parking him on the wings with more frequency.
In a vacuum, this has been a success. It might seem a bit excessive that Ibaka is on pace to triple his career high in three-point attempts, but he has hit his 113 long range shots at a 40.7% clip. Of particular importance is the fact that the Thunder were able to get him open (i.e. shooting with no defender within four feet) on 101 of his 113 three-point attempts, according to NBA.com’s SportVU tracking technology. This is important, for Ibaka is not a complete shooter yet. He has a rather natural stroke for a big guy, but doesn’t have a particularly quick release and needs the extra time to load his shot in rhythm, missing eight of his 11 contested three-point attempts so far.
While Ibaka is producing at an above average clip from beyond the arc, the increase of possessions in which he spots up in the perimeter has cost him production around the basket, where he was once an elite player. According to basketball-reference.com, Ibaka is taking less than a quarter of his shots at the rim this season, after taking almost a third of them there the previous two seasons. He’s a truly great finisher at the basket due to his ability to play above the rim as target for lobs, the speed and force with which he can attack off the catch diving down the lane with momentum, and his activity on the offensive glass. According to nbasavant.com, dunks and tip shots accounted for 24.2% of his 501 two-point field goals last season. But we are seeing far less of that this season.
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Ibaka gets most of his mid-range jump-shots out of pick-and-pops with Russell Westbrook, so his long-two point jumpshot rate has only slightly declined, and is still large enough to represent over a quarter of his shots. What has changed however is, on those possessions where Ibaka is on the weak-side, he is no longer cutting baseline or establishing rebounding position below the rim as much due to his tendency to spot up from beyond the arc a lot more. He collected 10% of Oklahoma City’s misses last season and ranked in the top 10 in the league in this category a couple of seasons ago, but that number is now down to just 7.3%. Dunks and tip shots have accounted for just 25 of his 145 two-point field goals this season, and he is averaging less than two free throws per 36 minutes.
While one can understand why Oklahoma City is developing Ibaka into a player with an unlimited scoring zone, one also ponders if by doing so they aren’t failing to maximize what he does best and what the eventual net gain is. Ibaka is extracting that extra point of value out of his spot-up jump-shooting, but he’s averaging the same scoring per 36 minutes as a season ago on roughly the same usage rate, and his effective field goal percentage is down a bit as an effect of operating farther away from the rim.
Perhaps Oklahoma City’s motivation is hidden below the surface. In a breakdown of the Thunder’s game four loss to the Spurs in the Western Conference Finals, Coach Nick raised the question of whether Ibaka could be one of the reasons why the Thunder don’t run a more complex offense. If that’s the case, by developing Ibaka into a player who can be parked anywhere beyond the three-point line on the weak-side late in games, Oklahoma City can try running better plays (with Durant screening, perhaps) than it has been able to with Ibaka potentially failing to recognize what’s needed of him based on how the opposing defense is reacting.
It is of huge importance for the Thunder to have Ibaka on the floor late in the game because of his help defense. While he doesn’t play position defense at the same level that Andrew Bogut and Tyson Chandler do, for example, Ibaka is an elite rim protector due to his shot blocking skills. He has great quickness for somebody his size rotating off the weak-side, elevating off the ground in a pinch and using his nine-foot-three standing reach to erase layup attempts. Ibaka led the league in blocks last season and currently ranks second in this one. Opponents are shooting just 41.9% at the rim with him protecting it – the fifth best mark among players who defend a minimum of five shots at the rim per game, according to SportVU.
Logging more minutes with Steven Adams than the floor-bound Kendrick Perkins has affected Ibaka’s defensive rebounding rate some. Nevertheless, he remains a good rebounder, who looks to box out consistently on long-range shots and can get off the ground quicker to track the ball off the rim than most opposing big men. Most importantly, perhaps, he has proven able to box out bigger players thanks to the strength in his 220-pound frame, which is vital for Oklahoma City’s flexibility to downsize with Durant as a big man in the second half of important games. He is the rebounder and defender that this team – every team – needs, and year on year, he has improved and expanded his offensive game.
So many factors went into Sam Presti’s decision to trade James Harden in order to maintain financial flexibility for a longer period. One of them was him prioritizing getting Ibaka signed first, likely because he envisioned Ibaka developing into the perfect hybrid big man to complement Westbrook’s and Durant’s style of play. And with the addition of his jumpshot range, it has worked out that way.
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