Ibaka entered the ’08 NBA Draft and was selected 24th overall by the Seattle SuperSonics. While the Sonics moved to Oklahoma, Ibaka stayed in Spain and moved up to the first division, playing for Ricoh Manresa. He taught himself Spanish and continued to improve on the court—though he was just 19 years old, he averaged 7 points and 4.5 boards per game in Europe’s toughest league. The Thunder kept a close eye on their investment, sending over scouts and assistants to monitor Ibaka’s progress. But Ibaka, who had motivated himself along the way thus far, saw his own potential and was determined to develop it.
“When I get to France and Spain, that’s when I start to see my practicing, if I keep working, if I keep going, I can be an NBA player. That’s where it started.”
In the summer of 2009, a few months before he turned 20, Ibaka bought out his contract and came to the NBA. He spent his free time at the Thunder’s makeshift practice facility. He got a driver’s license, started trying to learn to speak English and tried to familiarize himself with his new home. For Ibaka, it was the fourth country and fourth language barrier to confront in just four years. There was, however, one common denominator the entire time: Ibaka had learned that if he worked hard and refused to back down, nothing could stop him.
He played regularly as a rookie, averaging 6 points and 5 boards, and continued improving this season, his second year in the NBA. He flashed on to the national radar over All-Star Weekend, competing in the Dunk Contest. A few days later, the Thunder traded for Perkins.
With Perk lined up beside him, Ibaka seems to understand his role—with Durant and Westbrook as OKC’s marquee players, Ibaka has had to get in where he fits in. Defensively, whenever a shot goes up, Ibaka goes after it. When the ball’s coming off the rim, Ibaka puts a body on someone. Against the Nuggets as the series went along, Ibaka showed an ability to knock down midrange jumpers, going for 22 points in OKC’s Game 3 win in Denver. Watching Ibaka play, it’s obvious why he’s been so successful thus far: He never stops working. He battles for every loose ball, wants to win every sprint up or down the floor. During games, Ibaka can occasionally be seen asking the ref for the ball. He presses it to his nose and inhales deeply. When asked on Twitter why he does this, his reasoning was both sound and succinct: “Motivation.”
“He’s a very aggressive player,” said Thunder coach Scott Brooks after Ibaka’s Game 3 showcase. “His midrange shot is probably the best on our team, he rebounds and protects the basket. The great thing I like about him is he comes back hungry every day… This year he came back not satisfied with what he did last year. I thought he improved every month of the season.”
As Ibaka’s game has improved, so has his popularity. Because Ibaka speaks multiple languages and has picked up fans in each of his stops around the world, his tweets are like mini-linguistics lessons for the rest of us: “Good morning … Buenos dias … Bonjour.” A YouTube video of Ibaka cooking an African chicken dish takes about twice as long as it would otherwise because he carefully explains each step in English, French and Spanish.
Even though he’s been in the NBA twice as long, Durant is only a year older than Ibaka. I asked KD if he could imagine going to another country where he doesn’t speak the language and trying to make a life for himself. “I couldn’t, I couldn’t. That speaks to how smart he is as a person. In basketball, too. He’s getting things so quickly, just like he taught himself English.
“His jump shot is getting a lot better,” Durant adds. “But really, his overall knowledge of the game has improved. Knowing where he needs to be. And he works hard, he works hard. If you work hard you’re going to improve in this League, and that’s what he’s doing. God has granted him with a great opportunity, to become a starter for us.”
“I have an opportunity,” Ibaka agrees. “I embrace this. I have every opportunity to do this. There’s not a lot of African players who get this opportunity to be here in the NBA. The opportunity is mine.”
The Thunder are about to begin practice, and Ibaka lifts himself from the floor and stretches. Life’s rich pageant took him from his home, took his parents from him, then sent Serge all around the world. Today, Serge Ibaka not only finds himself in Oklahoma City, he seems to have found himself in Oklahoma City.
“It’s quiet, nice people here,” Ibaka says. “I’m more focused so I can do my job. It’s nice. I like it here. I get to do something I like, play basketball. I like my team, I am focused. I’m happy.”