Ibaka joining ranks of NBA's elite big men

BY foxsports • March 30, 2012

OKLAHOMA CITY -- DeAndre Jordan peered downward, shaking his head.

Nearly 7-feet worth of annoyed, are-you-kidding-me-with-that-kind-of-question, disgust came across his face.

The Los Angeles Clippers center didn't try to hide his emotions. At 6-feet-11 and 265 pounds, Jordan can't hide much of anything, so he snapped back.

"What would you say about him?" Jordan said. "It's pretty obvious."

Suddenly a question which seemed worthy was merely brushed aside as ridiculous.  Being so tall and imposing adds a gravity to statements which really can't be duplicated.

"He's leading the league in blocked shots," Jordan said. "A great defender because he's an eraser. That makes him a great defender and a great shot-blocker."

When it comes to talking about the defensive merits of Thunder forward Serge Ibaka, Jordan's opinion isn't exactly one that's been rubber-stamped by the rest of the league. When it comes to Ibaka's statistics, the numbers are clear. But when it comes to talking about the best defensive players in the league, it's not like his name is a household one.

"It's much easier to grab guy's attention when you're talking about an MVP," said Miami Heat coach Eric Spoelstra. "(Dwight) Howard is so big, it's hard not to notice him. But a guy like Ibaka is as dynamic as anyone. It's the amount of shots he changes. It's the seven or eight he alters at the rim."

Certainly Ibaka's name isn't one for the MVP conversation. That's really left to his Thunder teammates Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, but the third-year player certainly is more than just a one-tool player.

"I consider him a great shot blocker and a guy getting better as a defender," Thunder coach Scott Brooks said."

Here's how much better:

"It's not just a guy going up there chasing everything," said Heat center Joel Anthony. "He can guard guys. He's what has made their defense really good."

A season ago, Ibaka led the league in blocked shots, averaging 2.4 per game. This year, he's averaging 3.3. That's more than Howard at Orlando. More than Andrew Bynum with the Los Angeles Lakers -- two players who are consistently in the league's-best-defender conversation.

More?

Ibaka had 11 blocks against Denver earlier this season in a triple-double effort, going along with his 14 points and 15 rebounds.

Ibaka has three games this season where he has 10 or more blocks. That's the first time anyone has done that since Shawn Bradley during the 1996-97 season. Ibaka has just three games this season where he has registered no blocks and he's a major part of the reason the Thunder lead the league with 7.9 blocks per game, 1.3 more than second-place Washington.

But perhaps more than any number, any stat and any argument in Ibaka's favor was a simple statement offered up Spoelstra when he said Ibaka was a major part of the gameplan for the Heat when they played the Thunder last Sunday, a statement confirmed by Miami star LeBron James.

"If he's not blocking shots he's changing them at the rim," James said. "He's a defensive presence a lot of teams don't have."

Ibaka has started every game this season, averaging nine points and eight rebounds per game. He's developed a mid-range jumper and he's developed a confidence to go along with it. However, he has not developed the same opinion shared by Jordan.

"I don't know," Ibaka said. "I just see myself getting better every day on defense. That's what I'm trying to do. Looking at my first year to this year, it's getting better. I don't know what others are saying or thinking. Coach is telling me I'm getting better. I just want to keep focused and improve."

So far he has, bumping up his minutes played, rebounds and blocks per game. In addition to overcoming a language barrier, Ibaka has steadily added to his game.

"He understands that when we have a breakdown, he has to block a shot," Brooks said. "He's getting better and he has talent. His timing is remarkable. Serge has a knack. He cleans up a lot of our mess."

And as the Thunder are emerging from a particularly messy stretch of games -- vs. Heat, at Lakers, vs. Bulls and then at Heat -- Ibaka has shined.

Ten rebounds, 19 points and a block on the March 25, 103-87 victory against Miami. Twelve rebounds, eight points, six blocks at Portland and then nine points, eight rebounds, three blocks in a win Thursday at Los Angeles.

"All of the above," Portland coach Kaleb Canales said when talking about what Ibaka does best. "He's an elite shot blocker, elite defender. I don't think he gets enough credit for his shooting ability. He's grown and developed so much."


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