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Serge Power – Ibaka is playing big more than ever

Photo Credit: Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports

Analyzing Serge Ibaka’s resurgence at the center position with the Toronto Raptors.

Photo Credit: Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports

Ed’s note: Bryan Oringher was the Washington Wizards’ Head Video Coordinator from 13-17 and spent 6 years with the team. Last season, he did regional advance scouting for the Hawks and Raptors. This year, he’s creating high-level basketball content on Twitter and YouTube — and stops by here to give us this guest column and video breakdown of Serge Ibaka.

There’s been a lot of impressive things about the Raptors’ 9-1 start. Serge Ibaka had the most eye-catching performance, going 15/17 against the Lakers–but what really caught my attention was this tweet from John Schumann:

Most players gravitate to the perimeter more as their careers progress. Ibaka was trending strongly in that direction, becoming more and more of a “stretch 4” every season. In my view, shat hurt Ibaka was his lack of ball-handling skill. Power Forward’s today – Blake Griffin, Draymond, Tobias Harris, etc.- handle the ball more than ever, attack off closeouts, and drive and kick. Ibaka has never been a particularly good ball-handler, which has limited his ability to do any of this.

In his tenth season, Nick Nurse “re-made” Ibaka. The highest percentage of his shots are coming from the restricted area since his first three seasons in the league. Ibaka has shifted to the center this season which many thought would be a gradual shift – that Ibaka would play in big and small lineups and go back-and-forth between positions before setting lin. Instead, it’s been an all-out overhaul. Ibaka has played every minute at the 5, after playing only an estimated 13% of his possessions there last season.

What has that meant? A complete shift in responsibilities on the offensive end. Instead of primarily being a floor-spacer, Ibaka is now a roll man who is tasked with being the one to put pressure on defenses as a diving 5 in the mold of Clint Capela, Andre Drummond, and DeAndre Jordan. That has meant sacrificing on the three which mostly entailed being consigned to stretch out defenses by sticking to the perimeter. Ibaka is playing roughly the same amount of minutes per game as last season. His FGA’s are up almost 3 per game, but his 3PA are down 1.5 per game.

The late, great Flip Saunders once admonished Andray Blatche for complaining about a lack of play calls for him while Kevin Garnett thrived without having plays called for him. Ibaka is doing the latter for the Toronto Raptors.

Schuhmann’s tweet made me so curious I watched every Ibaka shot so far this season. My takeaway? He is creating his own offense by playing hard and doing exactly what big men should do without having plays run for them. He’s rim-running hard as hell (and having a four man in Siakam who also runs like a gazelle and can handle the ball – frequently looking for Ibaka – helps as well). He’s setting good ball screens and ROLLING: he’s rolling on 49% of ball screens in comparison to 19% last season. He’s BATTLING on the offensive glass – averaging 2.5 OREB/gm, his highest since 13-14. And, surprisingly, the Raptors are showing him some love in the post.

When everyone else goes small and plays the same brand of basketball, the Raptors have balanced the best of both worlds. They play a modern, innovative offense that generates a ton of quality shots, but they also have been committed to getting Ibaka the ball in the post when teams switch. Last season Ibaka had 61 possessions (50 shots) in the post. This year, he’s on pace for 205 possessions (139 shots). The Frank Vogel experiment in Orlando didn’t do well and Ibaka’s time there was short-lived, but one thing noticeable about his time there was Vogel attempting to transform Ibaka into more of a post-up player. Perhaps it didn’t work at the time, but it may be benefiting Ibaka now.

When coaches talk about energy, or as Pop calls it, bringing “the juice”, they’re talking about playing hard like this. The Raptors aren’t giving Ibaka many isolation opportunities, they’re not calling post-up plays specifically for him, andATO’s aren’t designed for him. But Ibaka is playing the role of the 5 man perfectly and giving his career a surprising reboot in the process. Here’s perhaps the most telling number: on Synergy’s breakdowns by play type, last year Ibaka’s most common play type by far was spotting up (37%). This year, that’s only his 4th most common type (14%), with more of his offense coming from P/R’s, transition, and even post-ups.

In my video, you’ll see 53 Ibaka shots this year. We’ll start with the hustle plays (transition and offensive rebounding). We’ll show some dunker spacing clips and how important being in the right spot is. You’ll see him rolling hard and finishing with authority at the basket, followed by the Raptors taking advantage of teams switching by rolling Ibaka down to the post. A lot of small-ball bigs in the league, like Marvin Williams and Ersan Ilyasova, allow teams to switch easily onto them by not having very effective post games. Ibaka seemed to be in this group the last couple years, but it’s clear that he did a lot of work in the offseason with the Raptors’ coaches and it’s paying off.

Finally, real junkies will enjoy seeing the Raptors’ SOB Stack P/R play (which @CoopNBA tells me is called “1”), which is definitely generating a lot of shots for Ibaka and might be the closest thing the Raptors have to a play “for” him. And the last tendency for Ibaka is knowing he likes to put the ball down going right. You’ll see a couple of long close-outs where Ibaka is able to get defenders who didn’t do their personnel homework with right hand drives.

Follow Bryan on Twitter @BryanOringher.

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