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Player Preview 2017-18: Serge Ibaka must become a reliable third option

Is Serge Ibaka capable of holding down a larger role in the Raptors’ new-look offense?

NBA: Preseason-Toronto Raptors at Los Angeles Clippers Hugh Gentry-USA TODAY Sports

As we approach the start of the 2017-18 NBA season, the Toronto Raptors certainly have a new-look bench with an abundance of young talent now forced to fill much larger roles in the rotation following a handful of key contributors swapping jerseys this past off-season. In short, a lot has changed in Toronto.

But consistency will still be a key component for this particular Raptors roster to thrive throughout the year. Knowing Toronto will still rely on the scoring prowess of All-Star’s Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan, it stands to reason that Serge Ibaka, the third highest paid player on the team, must become a reliable third option for sustained team success.

Ibaka was traded to the Raptors for guard Terrence Ross just before the All-Star break last season. Though his numbers dipped slightly from those of his dispiriting half-season in Orlando, they proved to be fairly consistent with the career numbers he’d set after seven seasons in Oklahoma City. And his contributions on both sides of the court were more than needed for Toronto’s push into the post-season. Through 23 regular season games, Serge would average 14.2 points, 6.8 rebounds and shoot 40 percent from beyond the arc; a solid stat line for a Toronto franchise in need of a competent two-way frontcourt player.

Fortunately, Ibaka’s numbers persisted through the 2017 NBA Playoffs (minus his three-point shooting which dipped down to 30 percent), most notably against the Milwaukee Bucks in the first round. It was in this series that Ibaka’s value to Toronto proved itself the most.

Moved to centre in the Raptors’ closing lineup, Ibaka showed to be effective small-ball 5 for the team, especially when paired with Toronto’s skilled forwards, the now absent Patrick Patterson and P.J. Tucker. In that position, Ibaka plays closer to the rim, but can also fight off the pick-and-roll switches of most modern NBA offenses. On the offensive end, Ibaka is able to pull the opposing team’s centre away from the basket with the threat of his range. It’s a potent weapon for the Raptors to deploy for stretches. But still, this season Ibaka will start at power forward next to Jonas Valanciunas. It’s a look we’ve only seen in a small sample size, and one that didn’t exactly thrive in the faster pace of the new NBA, or under the intense pressure of the playoffs. Can the Raptors make it through 82 games with the pairing used heavily? And what about Ibaka playing at centre with some of the younger players — OG Anunoby or Pascal Siakam — at power forward?

After signing a three-year, $65 million contract this off-season, Ibaka’s performance will be under the microscope this season. In the early years of his career it was clear that every season Serge has improved his game, whether it be refining his footwork or expanding out to the perimeter. He has evolved from a one-dimensional, hyper-athletic shot blocker with a ton of potential, to a legitimate defensive stopper and a knock-down three-point shooter. Now at 28, Ibaka has to prove he can still do it all with consistency, and maybe show something new. He’ll be relied on more than ever in 2017-18.

The Raptors have talked a lot this off-season (and shown in the preseason), that they’re looking to change the way their offense is run. There’s to be more ball movement, more shooting from deep, more motion in the offense. Some of this benefits Ibaka, as he’s one of the best three-point shooters on the team. But he’s also shown to be something of a ball stopper on offense, and not always the most alert passer in traffic. For the Raptors to leverage his skills effectively, Ibaka will have to not only hit open shots, he’ll need to improve his awareness of the revamped Toronto offense whirring around him.

I’m hopeful Serge Ibaka will be the complete package heading into the season. He’s consistently shown throughout his career an ability to improve and adapt, and his value to Toronto as both a power forward and centre is huge. Behind Lowry and DeRozan, Ibaka will be the third key guy on the team — and he likely knows it. While the Raptors figure out which of their younger players can contribute consistently, Ibaka will be there to hit shots and anchor the defense. As for the rest — the ball movement, the awareness — only time will tell once the year gets underway.