Serge Ibaka relocates. The lithe Oklahoma City Thunder power forward electrically displaces himself to new locations on the court with ease, rolling to the rim, getting back in transition, or elevating his 6’10, 235 lbs. body above the floor. When he takes flight, Ibaka usually blocks the path of shots with his hands- or forearms if the shooter was that unaware. A game revolved around movement is apt for the 21-year-old Ibaka, who started his life in Africa before moving to Europe and eventually North America.
Since Ibaka's rookie NBA season in 2009-10, his potential has been analyzed profusely. George Karl recently compared him to Shawn Kemp, but the numbers don’t quite foretell that as Kemp always had more offensive responsibility than Ibaka. Who does Ibaka compare to, and what is a reasonable projection of what Ibaka will look like when he recahes his prime?
His per-36 minutes rookie numbers compare favorably to Tyrus Thomas, and they have similar athletic traits. In his rookie age group, the Ibaka-Thomas comparison rears once again.
Ibaka’s defining statistical contributions are in his shot-blocking and his efficiency relative to his offensive role. His per-36 minutes numbers for PPG, RPG and Block PCT as a 21-year-old compare favorably to anyone, with Josh Smith as the closest competitor. Under the same per game criteria but using the first or second year of a player’s career, Ibaka and the 2003-04 version of Samuel Dalembert appear similar.
Ibaka’s scoring, rebounding, USG%, and individual ORTG for players under age 24 put him in line with 1989-90 Horace Grant, who is a decent comparison considering both Ibaka and Grant are/were the up-and-coming frontcourt complements to burgeoning perimeter star cores. His PER and Block PCT combination for a second-year player is analogous to players such as Theo Ratliff and Marcus Camby. Straining the field based on stylistic similarities, Josh Smith gets discarded, as he is more prone to handle the ball and create for others than Ibaka has ever shown himself to be. Tyrus Thomas even now lacks the efficiency of Ibaka.
Ratliff and Ibaka share elite reflexes and timing for shot-blocking. Ibaka is a better rebounder and a more efficient offensive player, while Ratliff gets the edge as a post defender against centers given his strength and build.
The Grant comparison intrigues simply because early Horace was agile and based his offensive contributions on movement as well; it made him an incredibly efficient player in his prime. Ibaka presently lacks Grant’s mid-range jumper and passing ability, but beats him in shot-blocking. He also has the upper hand as a run/jump finisher.
Ibaka has more in common with Dalembert than Camby. The commonality of their advanced stats extends beyond Dalembert’s second season, however, as neither his role nor production ever changed as he aged. It’s certainly possible Ibaka stops here and remains a quality big man like Dalembert, but considering no other modern-age 21-year-old with his experience has put up comparable stats in a similar role and style, it is reasonable to speculate Ibaka’s career arc will have an upsurge that befits most NBA players with strong potential. Ibaka remaining stationary is a counterintuitive supposition.
Perhaps Ibaka can become the PF-version of Dallas center Tyson Chandler. Chandler’s second year per-36 minutes stats are similar except for shot-blocking.
Chandler excels in a role with simple offensive responsibilities while at the same time providing great defense. Although Ibaka is not as tall as Chandler, he can mimic the center’s ability to move into both empty pockets on the floor and vertical space above the rim.
Chandler saw his greatest individual successes being the beneficiary of one of two things: one was the superior spacing that Dallas provided courtesy of Dirk Nowitzki and co., and the other was having the best point guard in the league in Chris Paul delivering alley-oops. Oklahoma City possesses neither complement for Ibaka; they were below league average in 3-point makes, attempts, and percentage this past season, and point guard Russell Westbrook lacks Paul’s court vision.
James Harden’s continued development could solve some issues. His pick-n-roll play and outside shooting could highlight Ibaka well.
If Ibaka becomes a PF imitation of Chandler, what exactly will that player look like?
Chandler takes a much larger percentage of his shots at the rim than Ibaka does, but Ibaka attempts more shots overall and has had slightly greater offensive responsibility. If this article is any indication, the development of Ibaka’s mid-range jumper and close range touch could be the biggest factor in Ibaka’s improvement. Food for thought: Ibaka went from being a 63 percent free throw shooter as a rookie to a 75 percent free throw shooter a year later.
Ibaka could plausibly touch Chandler’s level of defense, especially as a paint disruptor and pick-n-roll scrambler. Chandler’s bigger build lends itself to playing better man defense in the post, but future Ibaka will likely have Kendrick Perkins for that job. Ibaka will block more shots, as he’s closer to Ratliff or Dalembert in that regard.
An efficient 12-14 PPG. off-ball scorer who doesn’t turn the ball over, hits the offensive glass, and is in the running for top mortal defender in the league- Dwight Howard will be on his own level for a while- is possible.