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The Ongoing Evolution of Serge Ibaka

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After playing without him, let’s reflect on where Serge Ibaka’s career is now, and where it’s going.

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It is indisputable that the Toronto Raptors’ two most important players are DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry. They’ve been the team’s motor for the past four seasons, and this year is no different.

If the Raptors are ready to make a huge leap forward this year and challenge for the NBA championship — as some observers are beginning to think is possible — the key to a long run is Serge Ibaka. While DeRozan and Lowry will lay the foundation for the club’s continued success in 2018, it will probably be a rejuvenated Ibaka who makes the difference between another mid-round exit and a serious run.

This may come as a surprise to Raptors’ fans. Despite being a top big man for much of the last decade, Ibaka’s play has generally underwhelmed since Toronto acquired him last February. The start of this season was a lot like his play in the second half of the last campaign, with Ibaka serving as a rim protector and stretch four but little more. While his performance wasn’t terrible, it was offensively confused. As a result, it didn’t improve the team’s offensive mix as many hoped it would when he was swapped for Terrence Ross and a pick. He simply wasn’t changing games in any consistent way.

But all that has changed over the past several weeks. Since early December, Ibaka has taken his game to another level. Offensively, he is attacking and slashing as well as taking threes, instead of just camping out beyond the arc.

One metric that proves Ibaka’s increased aggressiveness is his dunk total. So far this season, he has 27 dunks, which is double the pace he set last year. And many of his flushes this year have been serious throw-downs that have galvanized the crowd and his teammates at key points in games. His one-handed driving slam against Dwight Howard in Charlotte on December 20th is just one great example.

The dunks are only part of the story however. His points per game is up slightly since December to just over 14 despite the fact that he is shooting threes at a lower percentage over the same period (19 percent versus 36 percent before December). The only reason he has been able to maintain his scoring is his renewed focus on driving the paint instead of shooting from outside or passing off. After being mostly an afterthought offensively since becoming a Raptor, Ibaka has become a key cog in Toronto’s attack over the past month-plus.

Ibaka’s defense has also returned to the elite level of previous campaigns. He is currently 7th in block shots, averaging 1.62 rejections per game. And since December, this has increased to just over two per game, which is league-leading territory. His six blocks against Brooklyn Monday night were a season high.

As with his dunks, Ibaka’s blocks have often come at pivotal moments in games. Again on Monday versus the Nets, he swatted away Spencer Dinwiddie’s shot deep into overtime to help secure the narrow win. His current defensive form has energized the team, and often ends up fuelling the Raptors’ offense.

If NBA observers have not taken notice of a re-energized Ibaka, they soon will if he maintains his current performance level. More importantly, it will help give Toronto the proper mix to challenge Lebron and the Cavs, and finally emerge from the East. Ibaka’s aggressiveness on the offensive end will open up time and space for DeRozan and Lowry, and likely prevent teams from being so quick to double the duo.

Provided that the Serge Ibaka of the last two months sticks around until the spring, this could be a very interesting season for the Raptors.