The Oklahoma City Thunder had four of its players playing in the 2012 Olympic gold medal game a few weeks ago. Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and James Harden represented the U.S. while Serge Ibaka played for Spain as their one naturalized citizen.
Ibaka played just 15.1 minutes per game averaging 8.0 points and 4.4 rebounds per game for Spain. It was hard for him to find time playing the same position as the Gasol brothers and it bothered him.
Ibaka’s anger was public and a secret during the Olympic Games. After every practice, while the rest of the players shared coffee or fruit, the Thunder forward kept all the distance possible. The day before the final, for example, he waited all by himself in the bus for half an hour, with an angry look.
Ibaka felt underutilized, his status questioned. “If things keep going this way, I’m not coming back [to the Spanish national team],” Ibaka told close friends before the final against United States.
Ibaka definitely was underutilized for Spain but it is not something that was too surprising. European coaches often play more talented players less minutes and instead go with players with more experience or that bring more chemistry to the floor.
The Gasol brothers were going to get the bulk of the big man minutes too, everyone knew that going into the Games. The surprise was when Ibaka would be on the bench while Felipe Reyes was getting minutes or Spain was going small.
Ibaka’s impact on the floor was something no other Spanish player had, being able to protect the rim so well and being a superior athlete to just about anyone.
Ibaka’s Olympic experience was hoped to be one where he could grow into a more confident and complete player. That wasn’t exactly the case but it wasn’t all bad either.
Ibaka played in the NBA Finals and then an Olympic gold medal game at the age of 22. He has signed a 4-year, $48 million contract extension with the Thunder. He will have grown from these experiences and the Thunder can expect better Ibaka going forward.