Toronto’s face of the franchise, DeMar DeRozan was traded for disgruntled star Kawhi Leonard in a dry free agency period except for LeBron James announcing his decision to join the Lakers and DeMarcus Cousins deciding to sign with the juggernaut Warriors. With all of the change around the Toronto Raptors organization, Serge Ibaka must be the x-factor in the 2018-2019 season.
Ibaka, once one of the most feared interior defenders in the game, has had his blocks per game average decrease over the past three seasons. In his lone season with the Orlando Magic, Ibaka averaged 1.6 blocks per game. Last season, in his first season with the Raptors, he averaged 1.4 blocks per game and this past season, he averaged 1.3 blocks per game, which was his lowest average since his rookie season.
Although his blocks per game have decreased over the last few years, he is 28 years old, in his prime, still with the ability to be the ferocious defensive presence he was with Oklahoma City. The interior defense must come back to the level of his later Thunder days when he averaged 2.7 and 2.4 blocks per game to help Toronto get even better on the defensive end. The Raptors posted a top-5 defensive rating at 103.4 during the regular season. Ibaka must keep being a versatile defender for Toronto to be in competition with the rest of the elite East teams in Boston and Philadelphia.
On the offensive end, Serge Ibaka has taken strides to his game to become a modern NBA big. Last season, he attempted 3.9 three-pointers, making 1.4 per game, good for a 36 percent clip. For a big man who was often a post player that shot hook shots and short mid-range shots, this was a significant addition to Ibaka’s offensive arsenal. It helps the keep the defense honest with his powerful driving ability. The long range shooting also keeps the attention on him and off the star players as it did with Kyle Lowry and DeRozan.
In the video above, Ibaka is often taking a dribble and stepping back for the three. He is also setting a pick and popping out to the three-point line for his three-point shots. Many of his shots in the video above, are jump shots and not as many are interior shots. This is the mold of the modern NBA big. A player who can shoot from beyond the arc and can defend is essential.
On shots in the range of 20-24 feet, Serge Ibaka is shooting 44-of-104 from three, or 42.3 percent. Compare that to the range of 25-29 feet, Ibaka is shooting 63-of-193 from three, or 32.6 percent. His percentage is much higher in the 20-24 foot range than the 25-29 foot range, which suggests that he should take more three-point shots just behind the three-point line and not move further out. Nonetheless, Ibaka’s long-range shooting will be a major weapon for him going into next season, if he wants to be the x-factor the Raptors need.
Interior defense and shooting are vital to Ibaka being the x-factor for the Raptors next season, but one attribute might be bigger than those characteristics. That attribute is his veteran leadership with the younger players on the roster. The players Ibaka could help mentor and lead by example are OG Anunoby, Delon Wright, Pascal Siakam and Fred Van Vleet. The 10-year veteran can really help the younger players expand and improve their game.
It is vital that a team with an average of 26.4 years old, according to HispanosNBA have the presence of some veteran leadership. They have seven players on the roster who have three years of NBA experience or less. Ibaka being a veteran presence on the court and in the locker room will be one of the most significant steps the Raptors organization can take, and it will help him be the x-factor the Raptors need him to be.
With the departure of DeRozan, the uncertain future of Leonard with the Raptors and Lowry at the helm, the Toronto Raptors need Ibaka to be the x-factor in this upcoming season with his shooting, defense, and veteran leadership. And maybe, just maybe, Ibaka can remind the basketball universe why he was such a force on the defensive end and an ever so improving offensive player in his third season with Toronto.