Serge Ibaka never planned on becoming the NBA's best shot blocker.
“When I started playing basketball,” he said, “I didn't really know if I would be a good shot blocker.”
It took pushing and prodding.
“My coaches were asking me to do it, my teammates,” Ibaka said. “And I said OK. It's something I know my teammates need. That's why I try to do it.”
Ibaka wasn't convinced he could be a rim protector until moving to Spain six years ago. That's when he first noticed his shot-blocking skills were on another level.
“At that point,” Ibaka said, “I tried to go and block every one that I (could) and then it started coming to me.”
Ibaka was a natural, with world-class athleticism wired throughout his muscular 6-foot-10 inch frame. But he focused on nurturing his natural ability, aiming to be the best shot-blocker he could be.
“I spent a lot of time in the gym to work on my legs, abs, all kind of stuff so I can jump,” Ibaka said.
After much practice and patience, Ibaka is now gearing up for his fourth NBA season as arguably the league's most feared shot blocker. He led the league in blocks per game a year ago with 3.65 average. The next closest player was JaVale McGee at 2.16 blocks per game.
Ibaka's 241 total blocks in 2011-12 also paced all players for the second consecutive season. He tallied 198 blocked shots two seasons ago.
“It just comes natural for some guys,” said Thunder reserve center Cole Aldrich. “Some guys are shot-blockers and some guys are charge-takers — and some guys just get out of the way. It's not easy to do, but if you really can master it like Serge has you get really, really good at it.”
Ask anyone what makes Ibaka a great shot blocker and their answers inevitably start with his physical gifts.
“His athleticism, at 6-10, is probably among the best in the league,” said Thunder coach Scott Brooks.
Timing generally is the next thing.
“He has the ability to cover a lot of ground within seconds and his timing is remarkable,” Brooks said.
Said center Kendrick Perkins: “He's kind of getting to the point, and I wouldn't tell him this in his face, where he's mastered the timing of the shot block.”
Trust is important, too.
“He has no conscious about going (to help) and his man getting buckets,” said McGee, now with the Denver Nuggets. “He can always cut down and help out. Knowing that you have teammates that will get your back it's easy to block shots.”
Hasheem Thabeet, who dominated college basketball as a shot-blocker at Connecticut, said great shot blockers have instincts that others don't. In other words, regardless of how athletic a player is, he must have a sixth sense to detect when to challenge a shot.
“You got to have the timing and the IQ to know when to go, when not to go,” Perkins said. “And he does a great job of knowing. Some people will just jump to say they went to challenge or tried to block it. But that's stupid. If you're really watching the game it's like, ‘Why did you do that?'
“But he knows the timing. He knows when to go get one or when to fake at one and set up another block for later. And he knows when to just play straight up and jump straight up with two hands.”
Ibaka's development has made him one of the anchor of the Thunder's defense alongside Perkins. Teammates now funnel offensive players toward Ibaka. Even on botched plays, Ibaka is relied on to come to the rescue.
“Just watch,” Perkins said. “Now we're to the point where if it's a turnover or another team has a fast break, the guards are taught not to foul because we know Serge is trailing from behind to block a shot.”
IBAKA'S MASTERPIECE MOMENT
Chasing down Wilson Chandler
It's impossible for Serge Ibaka to single out his most memorable blocked shot.
There are just too many.
That's because of the regularity with which he executes his favorite style of rejection.
It's the chase-down block.
“On a fast break,” Ibaka said, “coming from the back and the guy doesn't see you.”
Ibaka chose not to name names.
“It's a lot,” he said, laughing. “I don't want to say a name, though.”
A quick YouTube search, however, yields one of his most impressive chase-down blocks. The opponent was Denver. The victim: forward Wilson Chandler.
It was Game 1 of the first round of the 2011 playoffs. Late in the second quarter, Chandler intercepted a pass by Russell Westbrook and raced the other way. Chandler attacked a backpedaling Kevin Durant with a full head of steam. When Durant took a token swipe at the ball, Chandler went up for a layup. It was inches from ending in an uncontested bucket that would bump Denver's lead to six.
But that's when Ibaka came flying in, sending the shot into the second row with a brutal block that ignited the OKC crowd. Ibaka followed the path of the ball, venturing toward the courtside seats where he pounded his chest three times and unleashed a roar.
“It's a good hustle play,” said Thabo Sefolosha of Ibaka's chase-down blocks. “Every time there's a good hustle play like that it gets the crowd fired up and it gets the team fired up. We like to see that, any player doing something like that dedicated to the team and basically giving up themselves for the team.”