Toronto Raptors: Serge Ibaka’s sudden career renaissance

(Rick Madonik/Toronto Star via Getty Images)
(Rick Madonik/Toronto Star via Getty Images) /

Ever since his glory years in Oklahoma City, Serge Ibaka has been cast aside into the shadows. This season with the Toronto Raptors, however, is different.

Twenty-three games into the still-young NBA season, Serge Ibaka has emerged as a key figure to the Toronto Raptors‘ league-best 19-4 record.

Some of his performances have been nothing short of outstanding, as his 34-point outburst on 15-of-17 shooting against the Los Angeles Lakers comes to mind.

The big man’s time in the NBA has been, to put it bluntly, a roller-coaster ride.

He had his highs with the Oklahoma City Thunder teams led by Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, his lows with an Orlando Magic team trying to undo its wrongdoings and he has spent the last two and a half years in Toronto trying to find himself again as a player.

He would become the first player to come out from the Democratic Republic of Congo when he was drafted with the 24th overall pick in the 2008 draft.

However, his arrival in the NBA would have to wait another year, as he had signed to a contract with Ricoh Manresa from the ACB League in Spain. When he did arrive, though, he was an instant difference-maker in OKC.

In seven seasons with the Thunder, he developed into a defensive powerhouse, getting three first team All-Defensive nods and second- and third-place finishes for Defensive Player of the Year.

He led the league in blocks twice and was a crucial piece for OKC reaching the NBA Finals in 2012, where they would ultimately lose in five games against the Miami Heat.

Fast forward four years, and it is the summer of 2016, highlighted by Kevin Durant’s infamous free agent decision to go to the Golden State Warriors. He was not the only player to leave Oklahoma City, as Serge Ibaka too saw himself packing his bags and heading to Orlando.

If there was one trade Orlando could have a mulligan for, it’d be this one for sure.

In a season marred by inconsistency, along with him not being a great fit on the Magic, they only got 56 games out of him before shipping him off to Toronto for half of what they paid.

Orlando originally thought they would be getting the same defensive beast we saw roam the paint and protect the rim in OKC; instead, he looked uncomfortable playing at the 4 instead of his usual spot at center.

His first full year in Toronto was rather unimpressive. He averaged a good, but not great 12 points and six rebounds per game and on the court, he still looked like a shadow of his former self.

In fact, in Game 2 of the second round of the NBA Playoffs against the Cleveland Cavaliers, he put up a putrid two points on 0-for-5 shooting, benched after 12 minutes of play and benched for the rest of the way.

Overall, he was not playing like the guy general manager Masai Ujiri re-signed as an unrestricted free agent to a $64 million contact in July 2017.

And last offseason, his future with the team looked bleak, with no clear direction in sight. Luckily, as we now know, that arrow is pointing upward.

So, now we are here witnessing a complete rejuvenation of a man who was surprised many this year. His game is no longer revolving around being a major defensive presence; in fact, it’s the complete opposite.

Over the course of his career, if there’s one thing that he’s not lost, it’s his mid-range jumper shot. For his career, he’s made a solid 45.5 percent of his shots from mid-range.

This year, he’s converting on 60 percent of his attempts, making 33 of his 55 shots, and leading the league in this statistic.

Along with his newfound shooting prowess, his effectiveness when he’s playing has made a world of difference for the Raptors. The team’s offensive rating with him on the court is at 123.4, compared to 112.4 with him off the court.

Moreover, he’s averaging a career-high Player Efficiency Rating at 21.1, four points above his career average and more than six above league average.

Another key factor to his success is due to how coach Nick Nurse has been splitting time between Ibaka and Jonas Valanciunas at the 5. In just under 28 minutes per game, he’s averaging an incredibly efficient 16.8 points (a career high) and 7.5 rebounds per game.

This split has allowed Valanciunas to feast on opposing benches, as in just 19.3 minutes per game, he’s averaging 12.7 points and 7.3 rebounds per game, on a ludicrous 24.7 PER. He ranks 13th in the league on this metric.

On the defensive side of things, he’s not been too shabby either. He’s averaging 1.4 blocks and 0.6 steals per game, and when he’s on the court, the team’s defensive rating is at 109.9, compared to 112.6 when he’s off the court.

He’s not exactly replicating his premier years as a defensive powerhouse with OKC, but it’s something.

As we head into December, Ibaka’s play so far has shown some major improvement. It’ll definitely be interesting to see whether he can keep this up, as he has been a key cog in the Raptors’ success this year.

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For now, though, Toronto fans can rejoice, as he might just be living up to his massive contract.