SLAM Top 50: Serge Ibaka, No. 43

One of the League's premiere defenders is ready for a fresh start in Orlando.
by September 22, 2016
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For Serge Ibaka, change has never been an issue; it has been a given.

At the age of 16, he made the difficult decision to leave his family (which included 17 siblings) to start a new life in Spain. Not having an immense formal education or speaking the language in his new home, times were super rough at first.

But Ibaka persevered, learned very quickly, and within two years found himself a first-round pick by the Thunder. After seven years in OKC, it is time for another change, as he found himself dealt to the Orlando Magic.

What makes Ibaka’s trade to Orlando so interesting is that it was just a few years ago that the franchise was so enamored by the 6-11 power forward that they made the ever-so-difficult decision to keep him over James Harden.

Over the last few seasons, his role changed numerous times. Ibaka went from being rim-protector and finisher to being a legit stretch big man. His new home in Orlando reunites him with Magic GM Rob Hennigan, who was there in Oklahoma with Serge throughout the early years of his career, making one wonder what role the franchise will come up with for their talented big man.

While Serge has proven that he can drop 14-15 points a night throughout his tenure with the Thunder, there was very little offense ran through him. He was deadly spacing the floor, not only shooting 36 percent from the three-point line in his final campaign with OKC, but also opening up the court for guys like Russ and KD to get to the rack.

If defenders flew out at him, Ibaka’s offensive game had grown to the point that he could beat slower defenders off of the dribble. Once you add in the fact that he has great hands, keeps possessions alive on the offensive glass, and is always a threat to bang on you, it is easy to see why there is so much optimism in for a fresh start in Orlando.

On the defensive end, the drop that Ibaka saw in ’15-16 was moreso due to Billy Donovan’s varying defensive strategy than it was due to Air Congo’s lack of production. Instead of keeping him near the three-second area as a rim protector, Billy D had Ibaka out on the floor hedging/switching countless pick and rolls.

This change in philosophy allowed Steven Adams and Enes Kanter to hold down the paint with Serge’s numbers sliding in the process. Anyone who watched the game beyond the box scores realized that Serge was making just as big of a difference containing ball screens on the outside that he was two years ago manning the paint. Both Frank Vogel and Rob Henningan saw that, hence immediately making a move.

“To me, I love defense. In the game, some people like to score, some people like to assist, but for me, it is defense,” Ibaka said at his introductory press conference with the Magic. “I thank God with my hard work that I can now play both ends of the floor, but it started with defense. I have had the opportunity to play in the League for seven years now and it started with defense.”

More important than the impact that Ibaka makes on the hardwood is the one that he makes off of it. In addition to the varying projects he was involved with in the local OKC community, he has been the face of basketball in the Congo.

His inspiring documentary, entitled Son of Congo, gave everyone a glimpse of his efforts in his home nation. Ibaka provided an opportunity for some of the top players in the Congo to play in front of college coaches on the adidas circuit via the Serge Ibaka Dreams Academy.

Among the varying philanthropic efforts the he has with the Serge Ibaka Foundation, he recently reached an agreement with his former club in Spain (Manresa) to set up a pipeline for Congolese ballers to both study and develop. Given all of this and with a new home, Ibaka is beyond elated for the new start.

“Right now, though, I feel like a rookie again.” Ibaka told the Players Tribune. “I’m thrilled to be in Orlando. I know that might sound crazy to some people, that I’m excited to go from a contender like the Thunder to a rebuilding team, one that hasn’t made the Playoffs in four years, but playing now for Frank Vogel, a coach who prides himself on defense, is very exciting for me.”

Rankings are based on expected contribution in 2016-17—to players’ team, the NBA and the game.

Follow the entire #SLAMTop50 countdown.