Serge Ibaka is starting to find his groove with the Orlando Magic

After a slow start to the season, Serge Ibaka is starting to find his groove with the Orlando Magic. Ibaka has been more consistent in the past few weeks, a direct impact on the team’s play.

In the past few seasons, there were rumors Serge Ibaka wanted a larger role in Oklahoma City.  A trade to the Orlando Magic during the offseason made it almost a perfect fit for him to assume the larger role he has desired.

Many considered the trade to be a one-sided deal that in the end would benefit the Oklahoma City Thunder in the long term considering Ibaka was just under contract for one more season and many still viewed Victor Oladipo as a potential star in the making.

As the offseason progressed, the trade to acquire Ibaka started to make more sense. His defensive prowess and presence would help the Magic establish an identity and his offensive versatility would fit in with the other options on the team.

The Magic added additional veteran free agents to send a clear message the team was ready to start winning now. More importantly, the team was making a commitment to building a defensive-oriented team under new head coach Frank Vogel.

That made Ibaka all the more important. His role and expanding his offensive game were critical to the team’s success.

Leading up to the regular season, everyone expected Ibaka to have a huge year in a Magic uniform. Ibaka is set to become an unrestricted free agent during the offseason, which means he needs to make the most out of his opportunity with the Magic in order to get the contract offer he wishes this summer.

Things did not get started as Ibaka expected with his new team. Ibaka hurt his knee early in training camp, which limited his ability to participate fully in training camp. Ibaka also had to miss a couple of preseason games due to his knee injury.

Entering the regular season the expectations on Ibaka were at an all-time high. The Magic needed his production, and he needed to make the 2017 season be the best year of his career. It was a win-win situation for both Ibaka and the Magic.

Unfortunately, things did not get started well for Ibaka once the regular season started.

During the first two weeks, Ibaka struggled significantly, especially on the defensive end.  Ibaka came into Orlando with a reputation of being a rim protector, but early on he was not able to live up to these expectations.

Through the first eight games of the season, the Magic were struggling with a record of 3-5. The Magic were also struggling to find any consistency on both offense and defense. Ibaka’s struggles played a significant role in the early season struggles that the Magic were facing.

Ibaka’s numbers were below what everyone expected early on in the season. In the first eight games, Ibaka was averaging 13.0 points, 5.1 rebounds and 1.1 blocks in 28.1 minutes per game.

Ibaka was shooting the ball efficiently at 47.1 percent from the field and 41.2 percent from behind the arc. But he was not getting involved in the offense enough.  Ibaka was averaging just 10.9 field goal attempts per game. This type of production is not enough considering how much the Magic expected out of him this season.

On defense, Ibaka was nearly unrecognizable. He was not defending like the Ibaka basketball fans saw for years in Oklahoma City. In the first eight games of the season, Ibaka had an abysmal 114.7 defensive rating, which ranked him among the worst big men in the NBA.

Things started to change for Ibaka when Frank Vogel decided to change the starting lineup on Nov. 11, 2016. Vogel replaced Aaron Gordon with Jeff Green to add more of a veteran presence to a starting lineup that had been struggling considerably.

In the six games following the lineup change, Ibaka has looked like a different player.  He has looked more comfortable on the offensive end and most importantly he is playing defense like an elite defender once again.

His numbers have gone up across the board for Ibaka during the last two weeks.

Ibaka is averaging 15.1 points, 8.5 rebounds, and 2.3 blocks in 32.1 minutes per game in the last eight games. He has also been shooting the ball better. Ibaka is shooting 47.1 percent from the field and 50 percent from behind the arc.

He is averaging 12.8 field goals per game, which is slightly higher than the 10.9 he was averaging prior.  His usage rate has also increased from 19.8 percent to 22.8 percent.

Ibaka’s involvement on offense has increased slightly. It has paid off for the Magic.

His improvement on the defensive end has been the most noticeable enhancement in his game.

Ibaka has a 93.7 defensive rating during the eight games since the lineup change, which is a substantial improvement over the 114.7 defensive rating he had prior to the lineup change. Coincidentally, since Ibaka’s improved play started around Nov. 11, the Magic defense ranks first in the NBA with a 94.8 defensive rating.

It is hard to pinpoint what led to Ibaka’s early season struggles. But it is good to see that it seems to be a thing of the past. Ibaka is starting to look more comfortable on the offensive end and is having an enormous impact on the defensive end.

The key for Ibaka going forward will be to remain consistent on the defensive end and to contribute on the offensive end as much as possible. As long as Ibaka continues to play at a high level, the Magic should be a force each game on the defensive end. And they should have a chance to win on any given night.

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