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2018-19 Player Preview: Serge Ibaka, a role reimagined

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Is he moving to centre? Will he come off the bench? A new-look Raptors will have to find out where Serge Ibaka fits.

NBA: Playoffs-Cleveland Cavaliers at Toronto Raptors John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports

On a team that looks Finals-worthy next summer, forward Serge Ibaka might be the most perplexing piece for the Raptors heading into 2018-19.

When you discuss Ibaka in any capacity, there’s a tendency to compare his output against the weight of his contract. Now in the second year of a 3-year, $65 million contract, Ibaka may never back this up with performances that measure up. Last season, he averaged 12.6 points, 6.3 rebounds, and 1.3 blocks in 76 games played.

Basic stats aside, though — Ibaka shouldn’t be evaluated based on his contract, but rather what he can provide a team with title aspirations this season.

There’s no doubt the Raptors have a higher ceiling this year than last year (or any previous year). When Ibaka was initially brought to the team via trade with the Magic, he was touted as the final piece to a five-man starting lineup that always had a weak spot. After seasons of watching Luis Scola and Tyler Hansbrough attempt to shore up the starting power forward position, having Ibaka was initially a pretty wondrous thing.

Still, the numbers show that Ibaka has been inconsistent since joining the Raptors, especially during meaningful games later in the season. After averaging 16.8 points on 53.3% shooting in the month of December last year, Ibaka’s numbers showed a steady decline with a bump in February. In 16 games in March, he averaged just 10.8 points on 41.3% shooting, including 33.3% from three on four attempts per game.

Rest also affects Ibaka’s performance, as the eye test and stats back up. On zero days rest last season, Ibaka averaged 45.9% shooting and 27.7% from three. With a day of rest, that spiked to 50.8% and 39.3% from deep.

Another weakness in Ibaka’s game, shown especially during last year’s playoff run, was his defensive rebounding.

In small lineups against Cleveland, Serge had a rough time closing possessions for the Raptors, requiring Jonas Valanciunas to play more minutes and be more adaptable on defence. This is certainly one of the reasons Masai Ujiri brought in Greg Monroe during the off-season, a rebound-first big who can line up against active bigs like Tristan Thompson.

So considering these inconsistencies, where should Ibaka fit within the new-look Raptors roster? Head coach Nick Nurse has been public about his desire to try anything and everything when it comes to lineups — which means there’ll be less of the Dwane Casey tendency to start big and revert to small lineups late in games.

There are obvious advantages to Ibaka’s game. When he plays at the five, he creates enormous space with his ability to shoot the three. We saw this in Tuesday’s preseason game against Utah — when the Raptors went small with Ibaka at the five, the floor was wide open for Kawhi Leonard to isolate and create magic.

Ibaka at centre has been craved for a long time now, and it’s definitely a look that can work offensively for the Raptors. Playing him at the five with bench lineups (next to Pascal Siakam at the four) captures the bench’s hyper-frenetic pace while opening the floor for a higher production ceiling. This look didn’t necessarily work against Utah, as a lineup of Ibaka, Siakam, Fred VanVleet, Delon Wright, and Norman Powell gave up a 25-5 run, but when some starters are sprinkled in (and when the games matter) the story will change.

Those bench-to-starters transitional lineups could favour Ibaka — especially when Kyle Lowry comes in at one of the two guard spots. Lowry plus the bench lineup will be even more potent given that Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green’s presence moves the entire depth chart back a spot. I’m hoping that Ibaka is used more in these bench units, as opposed to heavy minutes with a more traditional frontcourt of him and Valanciunas together.

Anyone expecting a different Serge Ibaka in 2018-19 would be a bit foolhardy — at 29 years old, he more or less is what he is. Using his abilities in different ways, though, and covering up some of his deficiencies with new acquisitions will benefit the Raptors when it comes to the playoffs.

For what it’s worth, Ibaka is a heck of a lot looser in his public persona these days too! The “How Hungry Are You?” series on YouTube is endearing as hell (and aggregative as hell — content, babyyy) and gives us something beyond Instagram stories to enjoy as fans.

If vlogging is the best thing Serge provides this year, so be it, but on the floor the big man still has a lot to give. Finding and establishing his role early will be important for Nick Nurse — once Ibaka is comfortable, his assets should shine through more now than in years past.