Intriguing players at Hoop Summit
PORTLAND, Ore. -- The most intriguing players in the Nike Hoop Summit came from the World Select Team, including one who will be in the NBA draft this June. With better guard play, the 19-and-under international team could have made a run at upsetting the heavily favored U.S. Junior Select Team, a 98-78 winner Saturday thanks to impressive performances from forwards Demar DeRozan (17 points), who is headed to USC, and Drew Gordon (15 points on seven shots), one of four players in the game committed to UCLA.
Alexis Ajinca, 19, a 7-foot-1 center from France, will put his name in the draft, his agent said after the game. But the player with the most provocative story and upside was a teen from Congo. Here's a closer look at a few players from the World Select Team:
Serge Ibaka: The 18-year-old is a 6-9, 225-pound forward from Congo who has spent this season playing in the Spanish second division for the suburban-Barcelona club CB Hospitalet. Ibaka, who turns 19 in September, is averaging 10.8 points and 8.2 rebounds and shooting 55 percent in essentially his first official season of basketball.
Ibaka was 4-of-13 for eight points Saturday while adding eight rebounds, two blocks and two steals. He was not outclassed athletically by the Americans. "He doesn't know how to play,'' said an NBA international scout who knows Ibaka well. "But athletically he's off the charts -- there's no telling how good he can be.''
Which is to say that he has no ceiling. "If he could just get a good coach,'' added the scout, who passed on a rumor that Ibaka might move to the Spanish first-division club Badalona next season.
Ibaka's parents played basketball. His father, Desire', was a 6-6 forward from Brazzaville. "My father tells me that we are different players,'' Ibaka said through an interpreter. "My father was a true center, a defensive rebounder. He says I am capable of doing more things -- I can shoot, block shots, dunk.''
Serge was among Desire''s 18 children. After civil war broke out in 1996 (continuing in various forms through 2003), Desire' crossed a river in search of food when he was captured by one of the warring factions. "He was in jail for 1˝ years,'' said Spanish agent Pere Gallego, who represents Ibaka in conjunction with the American agent Andy Miller. "He was tortured. He almost died.''
Serge's mother died when he was 8. He lived with his grandmother, and during those times when the war was fought in his region, they would go hungry for a week or longer. "Their home had no water, no electricity,'' Gallego said. "I went to see his grandmother's house. At night the streets are of dust and trash, and no lights. There is no bathroom in the house. But he is proud to show us where he lived.''
Ibaka has made donations to his local club and the Congolese federation to help create opportunities for other young players. After the war ended, he began to play basketball more seriously. He and his friends would wear cardboard in their sneakers to cover the holes in the soles, and they would take a bus to play on the outdoor court nearest his grandmother's home. There was no league, but a local basketball coach helped him with the fundamentals.
At 16, he began playing for the Congolese club Avenir du Rail. Ibaka played for the Under-18 Congo national team in 2006 and was MVP -- as leading scorer and rebounder -- at the African Junior Championships the following year. While on loan to another club, he played in the senior African championship and emerged as the leading rebounder and best center. He was discovered by Cleveland Cavaliers scout Anicet Lavodrama, who had grown up playing against Serge's father. Lavodrama introduced Ibaka to the Spanish club Hospitalet as well as Gallego of the Spanish agency U1st. Ibaka joined Hospitalet last spring and spent last summer training at the Abunassar Impact Basketball academy in Las Vegas with NBA players.
"My dream is to be a recognizable player, someone that people will talk about,'' he said. "Kevin Garnett is my mirror.'' His role model, he means.