ORLANDO — Taking orders from an instructor can be pressure enough for a 7-year-old basketball player, but imagine what Dylan Yabon had to be feeling on Thursday when Orlando Magic power forward Serge Ibaka bent his 6-foot-10 frame in half to get eye level with the young camper.
"Eyes up here as you dribble," Ibaka instructed young Dylan as he practiced dribbling the ball with his left hand and learned to trust that it would return without looking.
"He’s sooooo tall," Dylan said of Ibaka’s towering presence at the Orlando Magic Youth Camp presented by UnitedHealthcare on Thursday at the RDV Sportsplex. Some 54 campers were treated to an appearance by Ibaka at the camp and, at times, it was difficult to tell who was having more fun between the wide-eyed kids and one of the NBA’s most fearsome shot-blockers considering the way Ibaka bounced from drill to drill offering up instruction and encouragement.
"I enjoy it. I remember when I was a kid, I didn’t have the support of these kids, so for them to be able to be on the court with a pro player, it’s good times for them,” Ibaka said. "So every time that I have the opportunity to give kids the opportunity that I didn’t have when I was young, I enjoy it.”
Acquired by the Magic in a draft-night trade on June 23, Ibaka is still in the process of getting to know Orlando and doing more in the community. Thursday’s appearance at the kids’ camp was the first public outing for Ibaka, 26, who has spent much of his summer preparing himself for what figures to be an incredibly significant first season with the Magic.
"It’s something that I love to do and I’ve been doing it for years now," Ibaka said of his desire to work in the community and give back to others. "I fell in love with doing it and I’m looking forward to being here in Orlando and doing the same thing."
Ibaka came to the Magic via a trade for Victor Oladipo, Ersan Ilyasova and the draft rights to Domantas Sabonis. Orlando heavily pursed the versatile power forward/center because of his ability to block shots, protect the rim and switch out onto smaller scorers thanks to his lateral quickness and length.
An Orlando team that made a 10-win improvement last season didn’t stop there, adding Bismack Biyombo, Jeff Green and D.J. Augustin in free agency, trading for Jodie Meeks and C.J. Wilcox and drafting Stephen Zimmerman.
Landing the 6-foot-9, 245-pound Biyombo to pair with Ibaka certainly caught the attention of the basketball world because of the possibilities of having the two shot-swatting big men on the floor at the same time. Ibaka, a native of the Republic of the Congo, has known Biyombo, a native of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, for years and the two are already quite excited about being teammates for the first time.
"I think it’s going to be great for the team having Biyombo because he’s one of the best rim-protectors in the game,” Ibaka said of Biyombo, who averaged 6.2 points, 9.4 rebounds and 1.4 blocked shots in 20 playoff games with the Toronto Raptors in the spring. "We saw what he did in the playoffs. So I’m very excited about getting to work together with him.”
Ibaka, who spent his previous seven years in Oklahoma City, is coming off a season in which he averaged 12.6 points, 6.8 rebounds and 1.9 blocks a game. Then, in the playoffs, he helped the Thunder eliminate Dallas and San Antonio before losing in a Game 7 to Golden State in the Western Conference Finals. He averaged 12 points, 6.3 rebounds and 1.3 blocks in 18 postseason games.
baka comes to Orlando with something to prove after seeing his scoring, rebounding and blocks dip each of the past two seasons. In Oklahoma City, he was almost entirely as a supplemental piece to Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook and he was systematically pushed further and further away from the basket as the Thunder used Steven Adams and Enes Kanter more at center.
Ibaka stressed on Thursday that he wants to spend more time looking forward at what he will do with Orlando instead of reflecting on his time in Oklahoma City.
"I had a great seven years in OKC, but let’s focus on the Magic and I don’t want to be doing TV-show drama, so let’s focus on the Magic," Ibaka said. "I think we can do great things and the next test is coming."
Ibaka led the NBA in blocked shots in 2011-12 (3.7) and 2012-13 (3.0) and he blocked a career-best 11 shots in a 2012 game against the Denver Nuggets. He feels that playing alongside of Biyombo and for defensive-minded Head Coach Frank Vogel will allow him to become a dominant and feared defender once again.
"The last time I spoke with Coach (Vogel) and some of the other guys I said it’s important for us to be at minimum a top-five defensive team in the league,” Ibaka said. "We’ve got other players and the talent for defense, so now we just have to work hard.”
Ibaka was hard at work on Thursday trying to show seven-year-olds such as Dylan Yabon the proper way to dribble a basketball. Throughout the summer, the Orlando Magic hosted more than 20 basketball camps, designed for boys and girls of all skill levels ages 7-16, across Central Florida. The Orlando Magic and UnitedHealthcare also provided 50 underprivileged kids with full scholarships to attend camps. In many of those kids, Ibaka saw a bit of himself and remembering how he wanted to someday play basketball at its highest level. Now, that he’s in the NBA and in Orlando, he said he wants to help others every chance that he gets.
"I wish I had the opportunities that these kids are having,” Ibaka said. "Now, I’m living my dream. This is really good for these kids to be playing basketball at their age. It’s good for their future."