At age 21, he led the NBA in total blocked shots, became a full-time starter after a mid-season trade and was playing in the Western Conference Finals less than two years after coming to a strange new world.
From his rookie season to last season, his points, rebounds, blocks, steals, assists, minutes and free-throw percentage all increased while making 44 more starts. And all this primarily was accomplished on instincts.
Imagine what Thunder forward Serge Ibaka might do when he learns the game of basketball and is actually on the same page as those around him.
Right now, Ibaka and his teammates barely speak the same language, but communication is improving — and so is Ibaka.
After becoming a citizen of Spain, Ibaka played more structured ball than any player on the Thunder roster last summer, helping lead Spain to the EuroBasket championship and then sticking around to play in the Euroleague.
Thunder coach Scott Brooks gave Ibaka a to-do list during the offseason and evidently Ibaka did it.
"His game is defending the paint, defending the basket, blocking shots, running the floor and making jump shots," Brooks said. "I just wanted him to do those things again when he came back, and he has. You can always improve in those areas. His understanding of the game, the more basketball he plays, it just helps him because he needs to keep playing the game, getting on the court and playing 5-on-5 as much as he can."
Ibaka still leans heavily on French-speaking teammate Thabo Sefolosha to keep the learning process in motion.
"I talk to him about a lot of things, positioning on the floor, what his role is also," Sefolosha said. "Sometimes he wants to do too much. He's just a great player, a great asset to the team."
Ibaka admitted to being anxious when he became a full-time starter, but felt he calmed down soon after that.
"The first two or three games, I was nervous," Ibaka said in broken English. "Not that it's a bad thing, but just because I wanted to do everything well, you know. Then after two or three games, I was fine. Now I have my confidence."
No longer is Ibaka relying solely on instincts. "After playing in Europe, I feel like right now I'm studying the game," Ibaka said. "I've learned how to be patient."