The first two games this season, Thunder power forward Serge Ibaka certainly didn't look worthy of the four-year, $49 million contract he signed in August.
Ibaka shot 5 for 18 (. 278) from the field and averaged 5.5 points per game, but the other end of the court is where much was expected from last year's runner-up for NBA Defensive Player of the Year.
Though Ibaka had 13 rebounds and four blocked shots the first two games, he didn't seem to have the defensive presence that was the crux of a contract extension that will pay him $12.25 million per season from 2013-14 through 2016-17.
Granted, it was a sample of two lousy games, but it hardly was a good first impression with such high expectations.
Since then, however, Ibaka has shown his potential as one of the league's premier inside players of the future.
Ibaka's offense has kicked into high gear. He finished with a career-high 25 points in Friday night's 105-94 victory over the Detroit Pistons at Chesapeake Energy Arena, marking the first time in his career he had back-to-back 20-point games.
In the last four games, Ibaka has converted 31 of 46 (. 674) from the field, has made 14 of his last 15 free throws (including 13 straight) and has scored at a 19.3-point clip.
Ibaka's defensive presence also has come more into focus. A stellar defensive effort came in Thursday's 97-91 victory at Chicago, where Ibaka had 21 points, nine rebounds and four blocks.
What made the blocks particularly impressive is they came against the player Ibaka was defending rather than him swooping in while coming to the aid of a teammate near the basket.
“He takes care of a lot of (our) mistakes,” reserve forward Nick Collison said of Ibaka's help defense. “When guys get to the rim, he's able to erase some mistakes and also make it tough for their inside guys to finish and to score.”
Ibaka blocked 6-footer by Carlos Boozer late in the second quarter and in the fourth quarter blocked a 6-footer by Luol Deng and an 8-footer by Joakim Noah.
“As we know, that's some of Serge's problems he's had in the past,” Thunder coach Scott Brooks said. “He's one of the best weakside, off-the-ball shot blockers, but he did those on-the-ball and he stayed down (rather than being coaxed by a head fake).”
Teammate Kevin Durant said Ibaka has always been a solid man-to-man defender, which is why he didn't view Thursday's performance as a surprise.
“Rarely do you see guys blocking a guy's jump shot, hook shots, or things like that,” Durant said. “Usually, you just contest those. But the really great defenders block jump shots and that's what he (Ibaka) did.”
Ibaka is 6-foot-10, weighs 235 pounds and has a 7-foot-4 wingspan. More important, he's a measly 23 years old and already in his fourth NBA season.
“I knew he'd be really good when he got here just because of his ability,” Collison said. “He's always had a nice jump shot and a good feel for the game, so I knew he'd be really good. He's almost a can't-miss guy when you first see him.”
The Thunder selected Ibaka with the 24th pick in the 2008 Draft, the same year OKC chose Russell Westbrook with the No. 4 overall pick. Ibaka chose to play pro ball in Spain for one season before entering the NBA.
“We got a steal, I'll tell you that,” Durant said when asked how good Ibaka could be someday. “We got a steal with that guy. We're just blessed to have him on our team. He's a great teammate first off, but he comes to work every single day and he's getting better.”