When Scott Brooks came to the defense of Serge Ibaka last week, the Thunder coach was simply sticking up for his player like he has with his entire roster since taking over in Oklahoma City. Only this time, in defending his rookie big man, Brooks inadvertently and uncharacteristically fed into expectations rather than tempering them.
Brooks objected to any description of Ibaka as a raw big man. The coach called the label unfair and said the 20-year-old Congo native is much more than a project. "Raw players can’t run, can’t jump and can’t shoot,” Brooks said. "They’re just tall and have potential. I’ve been cut because we’ve had raw players on the team that they were trying to develop. Serge is a talented guy that brings it. And he plays with a lot of effort. "I know that he’s young, and he’s only been around the NBA for four months. But I’ve been around players that I would say are raw, and I would not consider Serge raw. I consider him a very athletic bright guy that wants to get better, and I see improvements.” Ibaka’s rapid development was on display Monday night in an open practice at Midwest City High. On one possession, Ibaka coolly nailed a jump hook in the lane. A few possessions later, he soared over fellow rookie Byron Mullens for a one-handed dunk. And between finishing off numerous dump-off passes in the lane with two-handed jams, he gobbled every rebound that came his way. The big man can indeed play. "I’ve been with Serge all summer,” said No. 3 overall pick James Harden. "He’s been improving every single day, whether it’s his jump shot, rebounding or post moves. "And his English is getting a lot better, too. But he’s just improving every day. He’s becoming a great player.” While Ibaka still isn’t fluent in English, the language barrier is becoming less of an issue. Brooks joked that he uses exaggerated hand signals and facial expressions to relay his message to run faster, jump higher and rebound and go up stronger. "I give Serge a lot of credit,” Brooks said.