Serge Ibaka’s Playmaking Evolution


Every offseason, NBA players train just as hard if not harder than they do during the course of a regular season. Some return to their roots and train in the comfort of their hometowns, some stay in the city they play in, and some travel to the basketball offseason mecca that is Los Angeles. Regardless of how or where these players train, there are always a few names in the conversation of which players worked hardest and improved the most.

Serge Ibaka is consistently one of those names.

In a recent press conference detailed by Anthony Slater of The Oklahoman, Thunder general manager Sam Presti had this to say when speaking on Ibaka’s summer:

"“I think Serge may have had the best summer of any of our players, in terms of just improvement in overall game. He’s shooting the ball well. His passing has really improved. Where he is right now, he feels good. He looks great.”"

Considering the talent and work ethic of so many players on the Thunder, it is extremely impressive for Ibaka to be considered the most improved player by his GM.

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For the course of his career, Ibaka has consistently added new, significant wrinkles to his game. He began his career as an excellent rim protector and athletic finisher. He then became a deadeye shooter from mid-range, significantly improved his post defense; eventually, he stretched his range out to the 3-point line, even shooting a very respectable 37.6 percent last season.

Presti’s comment should have fans hyped for what “Air Congo” has added to his game this year. It would be easy to think that, this year, Ibaka has added a post game that many thought he should have already had in past seasons. However, if you read Presti’s quote carefully, it would be clear that isn’t the case.

“His passing has really improved.”

This should have Thunder fans more excited than any post game ever should.

Ibaka’s passing has been mediocre – at best – up to this point in his career, averaging only 0.5 assists per game. But a more telling number is his assist percentage, a statistic that measures the percentage of teammate field goals Ibaka assisted while on the court. Ibaka’s assist percentage last year was a measly 4.2 percent, as per Basketball-Reference.

If Ibaka really has improved on his passing as dramatically as Presti alluded, he could possibly be moving toward what seems to be the next evolution of the NBA: the “playmaking 4.”

The best current example of this type of player in the league has to be Draymond Green of the Golden State Warriors. Green is one of the few skilled big men in the league who can consistently flirt with a triple-double because of his superb passing. In fact, he put one up in the Warriors’ game-clinching win of the NBA Finals.

The key to successful playmaking for a big man, as it seems Green has already discovered, is knowing how to pass out of double teams because of how often bigs are doubled in the post.  In many of the plays Green made in the video above, he first draws a double team before kicking out to a teammate for a wide open shot.

Ibaka has so far proven to be highly ineffective at passing out of double teams.

The difference between Ibaka and Green is patience and timing. In the video above, Ibaka panics each time he is doubled in the post. Instead of finding the teammate that one of his defenders left open, Ibaka panics and kicks the ball out in desperation directly into a congested passing lane.

The most crucial part of Ibaka becoming an accomplished passer is perfecting his timing, something that Green is a master of.

In the play below, Green receives the ball at the wing and, seeing that the defense has not reset, immediately attacks the rim. With the defense in flux like this, two defenders immediately try to stop Green’s dribble. Green quickly notices the double and drops a beautiful pass into Jermaine O’Neal for an easy layup.

While he has not yet shown the passing ability off the dribble, Ibaka has recently started to show that he is at least capable of scoring off the dribble.

In this next play, Ibaka, similarly to Green, takes the ball at the top of the arc. Knowing Ibaka is an improved shooter, the defender (who ironically enough happens to be Draymond Green), falls for the Congolese big man’s pump fake. Ibaka then quickly drives straight towards the basket and smoothly finishes the layup.

Over the course of last season, Ibaka started to use that pump fake more consistently to draw defenders and then dribble in for the easy basket .

In a system such as the one new head coach Billy Donovan is likely to implement, there will be much more player movement without the ball. Ibaka may be asked to drop a pass to a teammate cutting parallel to the baseline instead of just putting up a floater.

The confidence with which Presti stated that Ibaka’s passing has improved makes it seem that the Thunder, as a team, are aware that they have a new weapon to utilize.

Draymond Green is an easy comparison to make in the sense that he is an offensively skilled yet defensive minded big like Ibaka.

Ibaka is already a terror on the defensive end and his shooting ability gives opposing teams fits. Still, there has always been a transparency to Ibaka’s game, a sense that there were as only so much he could possibly do with the ball. ESPN’s Royce Young put it best when he said that when Ibaka gets the ball,”It gets put up or it stops as he searches out someone else to give it to.”

On the surface, little things like this may not seem like they amount to much, but Ibaka could end up providing a spark with his passing. Ibaka has shown the ability and willingness to consistently improve. If the next step in his evolution involves adding playmaking skills to go with an already deadly jumper, he could wind up changing Oklahoma City’s entire offense, particularly in late-game situations.

In a crucial playoff contest, that ability could take some of the pressure off of Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. Green had that same effect on Steph Curry and Klay Thompson and the end result – a NBA championship – is proof that the little things have a huge impact.

Next: How Will Billy Donovan Handle First-Year Challenges in OKC?