BURNABY, B.C. — There is a four-litre jug of water at Serge Ibaka’s feet. It is nearly empty. It is barely lunch time. Clearly, Ibaka takes his hydration seriously. He drinks more water before his second meal of the day than most mortals drink in a week.
He’s so serious about his intake that not only does the NBA veteran make sure he gets the desirable volume of fluids to keep his six-foot-10, 250-pound machine properly lubricated through the course of his 10th training camp, he’s careful about the timing too.
“How much more will you drink today?”
“Just a little bit more,” he says.
“I don’t want to wake up in the middle of the night to pee. It affects my sleeping,” he says. “I need my rest.”
If success is in the details – get all your serious water drinking done before dinner so you can sleep pee-free, for example — then Ibaka could be setting himself up for his best year yet in his second full season in Toronto after being acquired at the trade deadline in 2017.
It would be welcomed. Ibaka is third on the Raptors’ salary depth chart and has two seasons (including 2018-19) and $45 million left on his deal, but he’s coming off one of the least productive years of his career and a playoff run that was flat-out disastrous.
During the regular season he averaged 12.6 points and 6.3 rebounds a game while shooting 48 per cent from the floor and chipping in 1.3 blocks a game – across the board lows since he became a full-time starter in the 2011-12 season with Oklahoma City. His three-point shooting slipped to 36 per cent from the 39.9 per cent rate he converted the season before, and in the playoffs everything got worse.
He came out of the gates with a massive showing against Washington in Game 1 (23 points, 12 rebounds and three triples) of the Raptors’ first-round series and then disappeared for the next seven games (6.5 points a game on 32 per cent shooting) before a slight uptick in Game 4 of the second round as the Raptors were swept by Cleveland.
He was, by any measure, a massive disappointment.
“After the playoffs last year I only took like two weeks, then I had to get back to work,” he said earlier this week. “I spent four months working hard. …I tried to watch film from last year, playoffs, and I tried to see where I can get better. I’m very excited for this season because I’m coming with a fresh mind. I’m trying to let go of what happened last year and focus on this year.”
Ibaka is a prodigious worker. He can always be found at the end of practices working on his individual skills, and his fitness regimen is beyond reproach. His meticulousness comes through in other ways beyond his practice and hydration habits. He’s always the last Raptor player to leave the arena after games as he puts himself through a full range of treatments and recovery therapies.
Away from the office his fashion sense is precise. Even in his highly entertaining new YouTube cooking series – “How Hungry Are You?” – where Ibaka prepares Congolese-inspired meals for friends and fellow NBAers, it’s clear he’s a man who leaves little to chance. The kitchen is spotless and he cleans as he cooks so it remains that way. The meals are carefully planned, the tricky-to-find ingredients – in episode four with DeMar DeRozan, Ibaka makes worms for his former teammate; he even caught fellow Congo native Bismack Biyombo off-guard with cow’s tongue in Episode 1 — sourced well in advance.
They aren’t the kind of meals you can pull off spontaneously.
One of Nick Nurse’s first priorities when he was named head coach in the off-season was to travel to Miami to meet in person with Ibaka – (no word on if he cooked for his new coach). Nurse encouraged him to shift the emphasis of some of the carefully calibrated effort Ibaka puts in on the floor, to push himself beyond his comfort zone in his training in the same way he expects his dinner guests to expand their gastronomic horizons.
The message? If Ibaka wanted to fit more seamlessly with what Nurse expects to be a more free-flowing, equal-opportunity offence, where bigs would be counted on to handle the ball and make plays and decisions, he needed to spend some time working on those skills and playing with other combinations of players than has been his habit.
According to lineup data at basketball-reference.com, Ibaka didn’t play a minute without one of DeRozan or Kyle Lowry on the floor and played 86 per cent of his minutes last season with both of them. Part of that was because the second unit became a nearly self-contained entity playing almost exclusively with big men Jakob Poeltl and Lucas Nogueira, each since departed, but part of it was because Ibaka couldn’t play the way the second unit played.
The departure of DeRozan meant change was coming, but with second-unit staple Poeltl gone, Nurse doesn’t want to be in a situation where he can’t play Ibaka in different combinations – in the absence of Poeltl and Nogueira he’s the club’s best shot-blocker. If Ibaka wants to maximize his opportunities he needs to find a better connection with groups other than the starting unit.
In their meeting, Nurse implored Ibaka to travel to Los Angeles to play more 5-on-5 with the Raptors’ younger players, who congregate there with the team’s training and coaching staffs, and to come to Toronto well before training camp to do more of the same. It was the same message he delivered to Norm Powell, who also had a hard time meshing with the second unit last season.
“All that group rhythm work [the second unit does], they weren’t really a part of,” Nurse said. “I was just like, you got to do some of it. Your understanding of what we’re doing, how it feels, everything will change dramatically. That was really the basis of my saying you gotta come in and join some of this stuff … it takes some feel.
“Serge is an unbelievable worker, it’s not about work,” Nurse said. “But it’s about becoming a little more group- and rhythm-oriented rather than being in a corner working your butt off on your own.”
Ibaka’s effort to make a closer on-floor, off-season connection with his teammates did not go unnoticed.
“It’s big,” said Raptors third-year point guard Fred VanVleet. “There are just some things you can’t do on your own. You can do all the workouts you want to, there is no substitution for 5-on-5. He’s got a better rhythm for what we do. Last year it was almost like we had two teams, the bench and the starters and we couldn’t really plug the bigs in with the second unit, but this year the more we have JV and Serge out with us, the better.”
It’s early, but the extra time seems be paying off. Nurse was effusive in his praise of Ibaka after the Raptors workout on Thursday. The big man even won one of the gaudy title belts Nurse gives out for in-practice excellence, in Ibaka’s case for winning the 1-on-1 tournament.
Nurse needs Ibaka to be good. The new head coach is planning to have the Raptors play a more aggressive style of perimeter defence and aim for more turnovers and deflections. When things go wrong pressuring on the perimeter, having someone to shut down the paint is essential.
“Well, I think Serge’s greatest strength for us is blocking shots, rim protection, rebounding. I think we all would agree, and I think he would agree too, that he wasn’t enough of a factor like he can be last year,” said Nurse. “Listen, he has had a really good summer … his ball handling and his little attack and kick-out game and put-back game and inside game are improved. But we have to make sure that his primary role and focus is to be our rim-protecting, rebounding, shot-blocking big guy.”
For Ibaka the change in routine was welcome.
“I’m trying to learn to play with each other earlier,” he said. “We have new players, new coaches, new stuff on offence and defence and having friendships too, spending time together, is important too.”
After a season he’d rather forget, Ibaka was thirsty for change and so far is drinking it all in.