The ink might barely be dry on Serge Ibaka's shiny new contract. But that won't stop the expectations for the Thunder's fourth-year power forward from skyrocketing next season.
Leading the league in blocked shots no longer will be enough for Ibaka now that he's about to take home a $49 million salary. He'll need to improve and improve in a hurry to live up to a deal that will pay him $12.25 million annually between 2013 and 2017.
Given his incredible rate of development thus far, Ibaka should have no problem continuing his development. It helps, too, that most of the holes in Ibaka's game seem to be easily fixable problems that, if remedied, can take his play to another level.
Here are five simple ways Ibaka can improve and transform his lucrative new contract from a good deal into a great deal.
Catch the ball better
Officially, Ibaka had just 79 turnovers last season. But Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant and James Harden and Thabo Sefolosha all know a bunch of their turnovers should have belonged to Ibaka, who inexplicably botched a boatload of passes. Thunder coach Scott Brooks at the end of the season attempted to stick up for Ibaka's poor paws when he said “It's not like he's Fred Biletnikoff or anything, but he doesn't have bad hands.” But the fact is that if Ibaka just caught passes cleanly, he'd be much more of an offensive threat. Ibaka has worked to improve his hands through drills since his rookie season, and he has improved. Whenever he masters the art of catching, though, Ibaka's teammates will gain more trust in him and his scoring average likely will see an immediate spike.
Finish stronger at the rim
Nene, DeAndre Jordan, LaMarcus Aldridge, Josh Smith, Al Jefferson, Carlos Boozer, David Lee, Marc Gasol and Blake Griffin. Each of those players earn between $10 million and $14 million. And each shot at least 65 percent at the rim last season. Griffin, not surprisingly, led the way among that group at 74 percent. Ibaka connected on just 57.6 percent of his shots at the rim last season. That's a pretty paltry percentage for a player as athletic as Ibaka. But it stems from Ibaka's baffling tendency to be a finesse player more often than a power player. Too many times Ibaka settles for a soft lay-in as opposed to a ferocious dunk, and when he goes up soft he generally misses easy shots. To reach his full potential, Ibaka must boost his shooting percentage around the rim by at least nine percentage points.
Improve man-to-man post defense
Opponents shot 40.7 percent against Ibaka on post-ups last season, a career best for Ibaka and 10 percent lower than what he yielded as a rookie. But he still has a ways to go. This is the most difficult area of improvement that Ibaka needs to concentrate on, but it's a significant one since it could have the biggest impact on the team. Better footwork and additional discipline is needed to shore up this area. As he gets deeper into this contract, Ibaka needs not bite on pump fakes, get caught out of position or be flat-footed when entry passes are thrown into his man.
Rebounding with more consistency
Ibaka pulled down at least 10 rebounds only 17 times out of 66 games last year. His 7.5 rebounds per game ranked second on the Thunder last season, trailing team leader Kevin Durant by 0.5 rebounds and edging out notoriously erratic rebounding center Kendrick Perkins by just 0.9 boards. Defensively, Ibaka can be a much better rebounder. He averaged just 4.6 defensive rebounds last season, or nearly three fewer than Durant. Ibaka's passion for shot-blocking is partly to blame, and while it aids the Thunder's defense it also can be a detriment when Ibaka is out of position for rebounds. It also doesn't help Ibaka that the Thunder has terrific rebounding guards. Still, a 10-rebound average should be a given for Ibaka.
Play without fouling
At first glance (at least statistically), Ibaka's 2.7 fouls per game don't appear to be a problem. But when you factor in his playing time — just 27 minutes per game last season — it becomes clear how much fouling limits Ibaka's effectiveness. Ibaka averaged 4.8 fouls per 48 minutes last year, seventh worst among starting power forwards. The soon-to-be 23 year old has ample upside to warrant $12 million plus per year. But the first step toward living up to the contract and becoming a more complete player is staying out of foul trouble and actually staying on the court.