TORONTO — Long after practice had finished, after the gymnasium had all but emptied out, Serge Ibaka was still on the court.
Working with Phil Handy — one of the members of the Raptors’ all-new coaching staff — he ran through drill after drill focusing on honing his perimeter skills. From virtually every spot along the three-point line, the 29 year-old veteran caught a pass, drove hard to his right, past Handy and a team of imaginary defenders, and, in a few quick and long strides, launched himself toward the basket for a shot close to the hoop.
Ten seasons into his career, nobody is asking Ibaka to reinvent his game. But his role on the team has already changed dramatically through four games this season. After playing at power forward during the majority of his NBA tenure, Ibaka has exclusively played at centre this season. And whether it’s pulling an opposing big out to guard him on the perimeter, or taking advantage of smaller players in the paint, the Raptors’ coaches are looking to find ways to exploit his matchup whenever he’s on the floor.
After starting 76 games alongside one another last season, Ibaka and Jonas Valanciunas haven’t played together at all thus far, and it’s something that doesn’t figure to change any time soon. Nick Nurse, like several coaches today, has opted to have just one traditional big on the floor.
So far, it’s hard to argue with the results for the 4-0 Raptors, who have jumped out of the starting gate looking like the team to beat in the East.
He may be playing primarily at the centre position for the first time in his career, but there are no plans to turn Ibaka into a traditional centre on this Raptors team. In a league that’s skewering smaller — or, more accurately, away from the giant, plodding centre — at six-foot-10 he has the size to guard today’s big men, but the versatility to do a lot more.
"It’s hard when you have to play a way you’re not really used to and you feel like you can do more than just that," Ibaka said once his practice session ended. "I can shoot, or I can roll, I can finish inside, I can take two-point shots, I can switch on defence and I can protect the paint," he said, adding that so far this season he feels he has "more flexibility to play my game."
That’s not to say there aren’t still adjustments to be made. Ibaka has been moonlighting at the five dating back to his time with the Oklahoma City Thunder but was still used to playing alongside a traditional centre like Kendrick Perkins.
"It’s been so long since I’ve played the five full-time like this," Ibaka said. "I’m getting back to that, and I feel like I’m getting better and better every day."
The early returns have been very encouraging. Although his minutes are only just barely up from last season, his scoring is up from 12.6 to 15.3, and his rebounding rate and shooting percentage have risen as well. And while his three-point shot hasn’t been falling he’s been attempting nearly half as many as last season as the team and coaching staff work to get him more shot opportunities closer to the basket. The changes have been hard to ignore.
According to NBA.com, the majority of Ibaka’s shots last season — 53 per cent — came off catch-and-shoot opportunities, while 13.7 per cent were pull-up jumpers and 29.6 per cent attempts were taken within 10 feet of the hoop. So far this season his catch-and-shoot attempts are down to 38 per cent, just seven per cent of his shots have been pull-ups and now the majority — 52.4 per cent — have come within 10 feet.
As Ibaka seems to be finding his rhythm and improving his shot selection, it’s not like Valanciunas has become the odd man out in the equation. The two have been a potent one-two punch. While Ibaka has been getting the lion’s share of fourth quarter minutes, Valanciunas has been effective when he’s on the floor, averaging 10.8 points and 8.5 rebounds in just 18 minutes per night.
Nurse promised his rotations would be fluid, especially early in the season, and he’s certainly been true to his word. The two bigs have each started twice in four games. Any on court adjustments to playing exclusively at the centre spot aren’t difficult — Nurse even said that playing at centre makes things easier, at least on the offensive end of the floor. But coming in and out of the starting lineup has been a new experience for Ibaka, and one that’s going to take some getting used to.
"I’m going to be honest with you, it’s not that easy," Ibaka said. "It’s been tough. But if it’s good for the team — we’re winning right now — I have to focus on that and be ready when my name is called."
In terms of what’s being asked of him on the court, nothing changes, Ibaka acknowledged. But it’s different. "Mentally, starting the game versus coming off the bench, there are different vibes," he said.
Nurse has generally let opposing lineups dictate which centre he starts thus far, and with the Minnesota Timberwolves coming to town he’ll have a tough decision with 22 year-old all-star centre Karl-Anthony Towns, who has a seven-foot frame that should matchup well with Valanciunas, but a quick first step and all-around offensive game that Ibaka could have a better shot at slowing down.
Ibaka says he hasn’t been told whether he’ll start or not, and isn’t expecting to learn until closer to game time tomorrow.
Strong as the Raptors have played early this season, and as comfortable as Ibaka has looked adapting on the offensive end, he acknowledges the team still has a ways to go to reach their potential — especially when it comes to the defensive end of the floor, where the team currently ranks seventh in defensive rating through four games.
"The crazy part about this," he said, "is that we’re still trying to learn to play with each other."
With a fresh coaching staff, two influential new starters on the roster in Danny Green and Kawhi Leonard, and new mindsets all around, there are still fairly large-scale adjustments the team will make as the season wears on and the playoffs near. The details of some principles, like switching on defence, will be introduced and tweaked as the season goes on and Nurse has told his team that they aren’t going to be using up all of their tricks yet.
As Ibaka puts it: "He’s saving it for later."