Toronto Raptors: Revitalising Serge Ibaka has been huge for the Raptors

Toronto Raptors - Serge Ibaka (Photo by Ron Turenne/NBAE via Getty Images)
Toronto Raptors - Serge Ibaka (Photo by Ron Turenne/NBAE via Getty Images) /

Serge Ibaka has bounced back after a poor year last season with the Toronto Raptors. Moving to center has rejuvenated his career and the numbers back it up.

Without sounding too pessimistic, last year almost felt like the end of the road for Serge Ibaka and the Toronto Raptors as a marriage.

Ibaka was coming off of a mediocre year where he looked a shell of his former self. Serge struggled mightily in the playoffs and that culminated in his benching against the Cleveland Cavaliers in Game Three of their second-round series.

Serge was given a second opportunity though, a chance at redemption, if you will.

With Nick Nurse installed as the new head coach following the dismissal of Dwane Casey, one of his first royal decrees was to forego the era of the old school frontcourt.

The partnership of Jonas Valanciunas and Serge Ibaka was no more, Nurse opted for a more athletic power forward in the mold of Pascal Siakam with either Ibaka or JV starting at center depending on the match-up. The change meant Toronto could field a more fluid, switchable line-up while still keeping a big presence in the paint.

Ibaka could match-up with the likes of Al Horford, someone who had, at times, rendered Jonas Valanciunas virtually unplayable against the Boston Celtics. Valanciunas just wasn’t able to compete with Horford out at the perimeter. Serge Ibaka would alleviate those concerns, while Valanciunas could handle the bigger, more paint-orientated centers like Andre Drummond.

The interchangeable center experiment was put on hold prematurely, with Jonas Valanciunas going down in late December, but Serge carried the load in his absence, right until the moment Valanciunas was traded for Marc Gasol. Part two seems to be underway now, just with an upgrade.

Ibaka will carry on regardless, in the midst of his best season to date. Averaging 15.6 points per game, Ibaka has become a focal point of one of the best offenses in the NBA. The fulcrum of his offensive game has been the much-maligned midrange shot, but Ibaka has made it his own, to great effect.

Serge ranks in the 89th percentile for midrange field goal percentage at 49-percent, the best mark on the team. Only Kawhi Leonard has taken and made more midrange shots than Ibaka, who has taken 378 midrange jumpers. Overall, Ibaka has the 19th best two-point percentage in the league at 58-percent and considering that over half of his two-point attempts are from midrange, that is a phenomenal stat.

Ibaka is still getting to the rim though, and his ability to draw fouls has been a nice improvement this season. Last season, Ibaka drew 54 shooting fouls compared to 67 fouls this season. You can put that down to the fact that he’s spending far more time in the paint this year. As per the stats, Ibaka is now getting to the line at a career-high 2.6 times per game.

His free-throw percentage has dropped to 77-percent, but that’s still a reasonable rate for Ibaka, and higher than his career percentage of 76-percent.

Last year saw Ibaka attempt to play as the stretch four, and while his percentages were acceptable, it seems more fitting to have him in and around the paint more often. Serge is still taking threes, but his overall attempts have largely dropped, and so have the percentages.

It’s not a case of stealing from Peter to pay Paul though, the Raptors still have three-point shooters, and superior ones at that. It’s a case of taking Serge and putting him in a better position to succeed and the results have been evident.

Because of his more frequent time spent in the paint, Ibaka’s rebounding numbers have significantly improved. Serge is averaging 7.9 rebounds per game, the second-best, the number of his career. It’s his offensive rebound percentage numbers that are equally impressive, jumping from 4.3-percent to over eight-percent. Ibaka is committed to hitting the boards for a team that struggles in that area.

Ibaka has generated a total of 226 points from his assists too, already totaling more assists this season than he has in any other season. He’s setting screens more and becoming more prominent in the hand-off game which serves Kyle Lowry so well, and the two have really formed a nice partnership, especially in the pick-and-roll game.

With the arrival of Marc Gasol though, everything feels like it’s been put on ice. Gasol is clearly the fall superior player and offers a lot more for the Raptors on both ends of the court, and this writer is an advocate for him becoming the full-time starter.

Let’s not forget Serge Ibaka though, who has really transformed his game to fit the Toronto Raptors needs. Ibaka carried the load for the Raptors when their only other center was Greg Monroe.

Ibaka is still a strong defender, despite not being the block machine he was a few years ago. The matchups at the five spot favor his athleticism a lot more. After looking slow and cumbersome playing against quicker and more athletic power forwards, the switch to center has allowed him to negate those attributes and turn the tables on other centers.

Ibaka’s blocks have dropped to just over one per game but he ranks 20th out of all centers in the NBA for defensive field-goal percentage within six feet at 55-percent (min. 40 games). He might be the statistical powerhouse he once was but Ibaka is still playing his role.

Next. Raptors key stats and numbers from February. dark

Ibaka’s impact might waiver if, and when, Gasol becomes the full-time starter, but don’t forget that Serge has still been a shining star this season. The Raptors wouldn’t be where they are without him.