On the day he announced his massive contract extension that would keep him in Oklahoma City through 2017, Serge Ibaka insisted that the megadeal didn’t add any pressure to what already is on his plate.
“I know my focus,” Ibaka said on September 10, rejecting the notion that a four-year, $50 million deal, and the expectations that accompany it, in some way can supersize his stress. “No matter if I signed for $50 million, I have my objective.”
Or as his teammates suggest, what more is there to worry about?
“It’s over now,” said Eric Maynor, who is awaiting his own extension. “The only thing you got to do is play. You don’t really worry about what people say.”
So far, the Thunder’s starting power forward doesn’t appear affected at all.
Ibaka scored 16 points with a game-high 10 rebounds to lead the Thunder to a 120-98 win over Charlotte on Tuesday night in the preseason home opener for OKC.
Ibaka added two blocked shots and one assist while making seven of his 11 field-goal attempts in 28 minutes.
His five turnovers and five fouls notwithstanding, it was Ibaka’s second straight strong showing. After sitting out the exhibition opener with a mild quad injury, Ibaka scored 12 points with seven rebounds in just 18 minutes at Utah last Friday.
Just like he displayed against the Jazz last week, Ibaka on Tuesday played with greater confidence and control. The raw big man Thunder fans once knew seems to be disappearing by the day. He’s being replaced by a more polished player demonstrating a better understanding of fundamentals and heightened court awareness.
“It’s getting better,” Thunder coach Scott Brooks said of Ibaka’s awareness. “That is the natural progression of Serge. He’s improved in his ability to communicate with the guys, his ability to pick things up on the fly and his ability to play with his instincts. You see that every night.”
Of course, Ibaka has played only two preseason games and has a ton left to prove — improved post defense, better pick-and-roll defense and a commitment to staying out of foul trouble among other things. But you can’t help but be encouraged with how Ibaka has returned for his fourth season.
Last year’s leader in blocked shots is every bit as committed to protecting the paint. When he wasn’t busy defending former Thunder center Byron Mullens (16 points on 4-for-10 shooting from behind the 3-point line) on the perimeter Tuesday, Ibaka challenged every Bobcats slasher that dared drive the lane.
But it’s Ibaka’s offensive game that is beginning to stand out.
Previously limited to getting baskets by running the floor and getting putbacks, Ibaka is now providing glimpses of how he might become an integral part of what, frankly, still will be an offensively challenged starting unit.
On several occasions in the past two games, Ibaka has found his way to the open spot on the floor and made himself a big target by flashing with his hands high and feet set. It helps that he’s as consistent as we remember with his midrange jumper and even looks to have extended his range.
Ibaka’s post game is growing as well. Working from the high post against Mullens on one second-half possession, Ibaka went into a sensational shimmy that created enough separation to turn and release an open jumper.
“That just takes time,” Maynor said. “Playing with each other for such a long time, you get more comfortable, and that’s what it looks like he’s out there doing.”