There are different types of underrated. There’s the interior belief that others underrate you, as best expressed in Fredo’s “I’m your older brother, Mike, and I was stepped over,” speech which was a little irritating, but mostly pathetic. On the other hand, there are teams that others expect to be bad, and end up good, as best represented by the Hoosiers, or the Titans, or the Oilers. They were certainly underdog teams in their respective movies, but their worth as narratives are ebullient and self-evident, as obviously Hollywood as any story could be. There’s of course a wide swathe in the middle between Fredo Corleone and Coach Herman Boone, full of people and stories who hold up the balance yet receive little to no press for their reward. They exist in silent success, like the sky holding up the stars.
Serge Ibaka has long existed in that middle category of underrated, neither condemned nor worthy of a Hollywood tale. He has simply been.
Ibaka has always received less coverage than might be expected. In the beginning of his career, he was teammates with Russell Westbrook, James Harden, and Kevin Durant. There’s not so much oxygen left in that MVP-filled room, for better or for worse. Then Ibaka spent a season in Orlando, where he failed to live up to expectations. Traded to Toronto in 2016-17, Ibaka was first cast as a power forward, where he was solid but less than a star. Last year, the team moved him to center, which position he never truly owned, first sharing the spot with Jonas Valanciunas before eventually backing up Marc Gasol. Though he didn’t become a star, or even a starting center, Ibaka was still effective and dutiful. Ibaka played more than 70 games in each of his full seasons in Toronto. All the time, Ibaka put in the work, never complaining, never fighting for more time, shots, or glory. He did what was asked of him, and he did it consistently.
There have, of course, been moments of transcendental achievement. Ibaka hit one of the biggest shots in franchise history, non Kawhi Leonard-category, in the Raptors’ closeout game over the Philadelphia 76ers. Ibaka served Leonard beef penis pizza, and he’s on the Mount Rushmore of most attractive players in the league. Yes, only one of those things is game-related, but the point stands that Ibaka has been integral in Toronto establishing a culture of winning and fun.
In fact, it’s probably more significant that of Ibaka’s most memorable acts as a Raptors, not all have occurred on the court. He has been a weighted blanket for the team’s culture, a heady vet, and a consummate teammate. He has mentored youngsters like Terence Davis and protected his teammates on the court as an enforcer. He has been cool, and he has been fun, and he has been culturally significant. Those things matter, and they take place more often off the court than on. At the same time, he has been on oft-solid, occasionally infuriating player whose mistakes can be more prominent than the successes of his grunt work. He has some of the worst hands in the NBA, often falling to catch drop-off passes. He can trend shot-happy on occasion, failing to see open teammates. Those are visible, perhaps more visible than his highlight dunks and blocks.
But over the past month, Ibaka has been on an absolute tear. The recurring issues in his game pale in comparison to the success Ibaka has recently found. With Gasol out with a hamstring injury, Ibaka has played over 30 minutes a game and absolutely dominated. Over his last 15 games, he’s averaged 17.9 points and 10.3 rebounds all while shooting 54.6 percent from the field and 40.0 percent from deep. As Toronto has missed its most prominent scorers, Ibaka has stepped into a larger role all while increasing his efficiency. He has been, more than anything else, dependable.
He is on an eight-game double-double streak, the tied third-longest of any Raptor ever, behind only two separate streaks recorded by Chris Bosh. In fact, Ibaka’s eight-game stretch is the longest current double-double streak in the NBA. Still, he is a backup center playing extra minutes because of injury; when Ibaka returns to the bench, he will be the second-highest scoring bench center in the league, at 15.1 points per game. He is a luxury, and his ability to lift his game as the moment requires has been, and continues to be, revelatory.
Ibaka hasn’t become a total salve to all of Toronto’s problems. Statistically, Toronto has been a much better team by net rating with Ibaka on the bench rather than on the floor, which only serves to show that Toronto’s starters have been outmatched during the period of injury. Ibaka has been a member of that starting group, and his poor on-off splits do not reflect any poor play on his part. No, he’s been brilliant while those around him, other than Kyle Lowry, have floundered.
Regardless, the Raptors will be best served with Gasol returning to his starting position. He is a certified genius, able to bend the court to his will without scoring the ball. He is a defensive maven, lifting his teammates and eating opponents’ hearts at the same time. Ibaka has been very good as a starter, but he is great as a bench player, and that’s important. With Gasol starting, Ibaka will drift back where he belongs: the uncertain middle. He will once again be forgotten and underrated, yet silently successful.
In fact, it won’t be long at all before Ibaka falls out of reach of the collective eye. Gasol said at practice on Tuesday that he’ll return Wednesday against the Oklahoma City Thunder. Ibaka’s minutes, and importance when he is on the floor, will dwindle in the coming days and weeks. He will soon return to his low-key status as cooking show host first, basketball player second. But we should remember the month he spent as one of Toronto’s most important players. He can easily return to that level when it’s necessary. Soon, Ibaka will once again be the sky that holds the stars. But we should all remember that the perennially underrated Ibaka can on occasion fill the night sky with his own starlight.