Serge Ibaka was asked about his contract extension kicking in next season and almost immediately unleashed an uncontrollable smile.
He darn near broke into song.
“Oh, money, money, money,” the Thunder forward said, coming close to reciting the catch phrase from The O'Jays hit song.
Ibaka, though, wasn't bragging.
“I don't think money, money, money,” Ibaka insisted.
That doesn't mean others won't.
When he returns for his fifth NBA season, Ibaka will be met by a foreign feeling.
The Thunder committed to Ibaka last summer with a lucrative new contract that will pay him $49 million over the next four seasons. The first year of the deal starts next season. With it, Ibaka will be expected to produce like a player earning nearly $12.5 million annually.
And the truth is there's no telling how Ibaka will respond to that type of pressure.
“The good thing about me … I never worry about what people say outside,” Ibaka said. “When people talk negative about me it gives me some (motivation). It gives me some (motivation) to go get better. It doesn't really bring me down.”
To this point, whatever Ibaka has done in each of his first four seasons has been a bonus. He was largely an unknown as the 24th overall pick in 2008. He stayed overseas for the first year after he was drafted, and when he did arrive in Oklahoma City, he stepped onto a team overflowing with talent in Kevin Durant, Jeff Green, Russell Westbrook and James Harden.
The circumstances allowed Ibaka to develop at his own pace and do so from the background. Perhaps because of that pressure-free opportunity, Ibaka thus far has exceeded all expectations. He's compiled averages of 9.7 points, 7.1 rebounds and 2.6 blocked shots in 301 career games. Given where he started and how far he's come, Ibaka's career already is a success.
Only now, Ibaka is now longer the fifth best player on a lovable up-and-comer. He's now blossomed into the third best player on a championship caliber team — and is being compensated accordingly.
If the Thunder is to journey back to the NBA Finals, and this time finish the job once there, Ibaka will have to play an integral role. Judging solely on what we saw when Westbrook sustained a season-ending knee injury, Ibaka wasn't ready for that responsibility in the postseason.
He averaged 0.4 points less in the playoffs and saw his field goal percentage plummet, dropping from 57.3 percent in the regular season to 43.7 percent in the postseason.
It was Ibaka's first time playing without Westbrook, and Ibaka struggled mightily to elevate his offensive game without his point guard who had long been the source of so much of Ibaka's scoring.
“I didn't think one day Russ would get hurt,” Ibaka said. “Everything was going good. Everything was going the way I want. I was getting my shot wide open, pick and roll, pick and pop, offensive rebounds. But then everything changed. So right now I just need to just learn from it and move on.”
Ibaka said his main focus this summer will be working on his game. He said he wants to be able to create his own shot next season and be ready if the unthinkable happens again.
“I will never forget about defense,” Ibaka said. “I will keep improving my defense because that's my number one option. But also try to be ready when my team needs me offensively.”
Ibaka's postseason wasn't always pretty. But it might have been pivotal if he does indeed become better because of it.
“He went through a couple things; a little adversity but he bounced back,” said Thunder center Kendrick Perkins.
“I thought Serge really grew up. It was a few times he could have hung his head but he didn't. He just kept pushing. He put a lot of pressure on himself to start making shots, which I thought kind of hurt him in a way. But that just tells you how much he wanted to win, how much he wanted to do well.”