The Salt Lake Tribune's Ross Siler has spent the week in Orlando tracking down the Summer League's most interesting stories. Today, he caught up with Congolese forward Serge Ibaka, the Thunder's (then Sonics) first-round draft pick in 2008.
No matter the language barrier -- or the fact that summer-league teammate Moses Ehambe was serving as his interpreter -- Serge Ibaka was able to find the words Thursday to describe the experience of arriving in Oklahoma City from Congo and Spain.
"It's totally different,” Ehambe said in translating. "It's real calm and relaxing. It's peaceful. He likes it a lot. It's good for us basketball players to be out there. He feels really blessed to be there.”
Whether he knew it or not, Ibaka once represented one of the great mysteries in the NBA: the teenage forward chosen 24th overall in the 2008 Draft who promptly returned to Spain for another year of development.
Just holding his rights seemed to constitute an embarrassment of riches for the Thunder, set someday to add Ibaka to a roster with Kevin Durant, Jeff Green, Russell Westbrook and now No. 3 overall pick James Harden.
The only question was when Ibaka would come to the NBA. The answer judging from this week's games in Orlando is sooner rather than later. Not only does he outrun smaller players on the floor, the 6-foot-10 Ibaka's game is far more refined than expected.
"He wants to play [in the NBA] really bad,” Ehambe said. "It's way different than in Spain, but he's really excited.”
The Thunder have yet to make any official decisions, but they have been impressed by Ibaka's play so far and are strongly considering keeping him on their roster this season. Ibaka is set to turn 20 on Sept. 18, only days before the start of training camp.
To accelerate the adjustment, one of Ibaka's coaches in Spain will join the Thunder for summer-league play in Las Vegas. Ibaka also started taking English lessons during his time in Oklahoma City.
"The one thing about him is he's an incredibly focused individual, just in his make-up,” Thunder general manager Sam Presti said. "He's focused, but he's also very humble.
"He obviously knows that learning a language is going to help him to be a better player, so he's spent a lot of time working, taking English lessons seriously on the days leading up to this.”
The Thunder, who scouted Ibaka for a season before the draft, were impressed at how quickly he learned Spanish while playing in the country. Ibaka joked that it only took him three months to become fluent.
There have been momentary miscommunications this week -- when Ibaka has to take out the ball, when he misses a play call -- but he plays at the right speed for the Thunder and is a fan of the 20-year-old Westbrook.
"He likes it a lot because they're the same age,” Ehambe said. "[Westbrook] plays really hard, he likes running, just like he does. He loves playing with a point guard that runs the floor with him. He loves having a point guard like Russell Westbrook.”
Just in case that wasn't enough, Ibaka interjected, "I'm very happy my team point guard Westbrook.”
Ibaka started Thursday alongside Byron Mullens -- no longer B.J. -- and matched up against Boise State's Jason Ellis. Ibaka missed a baseline jumper and lost his handle on a couple of passes but got to
the foul line from the low post.
Ibaka hit a right-handed hook in the second quarter and was called for a loose-ball foul when he went up to dunk a missed Westbrook free throw while it hung on the rim. He had two blocks and dunked
off a Westbrook pass in the third quarter.
(Westbrook and Mullens, meanwhile, both had impressive games, with Mullens scoring 18 points with equal parts alley-oop dunks and long jumpers. Westbrook finished with 19 points and hit a turnaround jumper in the first half over Blake Ahearn after Ahearn bumped Westbrook and then tried to slap the ball out of his hands as he walked away.)
For the afternoon, Ibaka had 15 points, two rebounds and two blocks, hitting five of eight shots and five of seven free throws. It was the third time in three games in Orlando that Ibaka has scored in double figures. His energy and instincts on the defensive end also have been good.
Despite the language barrier, Harden called Ibaka a great teammate and said he hoped he'd be with Oklahoma City this season. If he does, the Thunder believe he will fit in as a worker on a team that has
been built around them.
It also appears Ibaka will fit in well in the NBA. He wore a designer Louis Vuitton backpack around the RDV Sportsplex. "It's fake,” Ibaka joked.