The Sixth Man (cont.)
As a 20-year-old Oklahoma City rookie, Serge Ibaka had everything going for him last season. He was 6-foot-10 and 235 pounds with an exquisite NBA body and the athletic skills to dominate at both ends of the floor. The only problem was his understanding of the language. As a native of the Republic of the Congo who had played professional ball in Spain, he didn't know English.
"Last year it was, 'Serge, run fast!' 'Serge, jump high!' 'Serge, block!' It was all visual," Thunder coach Scott Brooks said. "I wasn't sure he wasn't understanding anything I said last year. I repeated two, three and four times in timeouts and making sure that he understood, and a lot of times he gave me the nod -- but a lot times it wasn't what I was talking about."
Ibaka didn't begin to play until he was 16, yet this season, he is averaging 10.7 points, 8.0 rebounds and 2.0 blocks in 29 minutes -- all major gains over his rookie season. Yet, his biggest improvements have been in communication. Two or three times per week last season, a teacher -- a fellow Congolese -- would meet him at the Thunder practice facility to instruct him for an hour in English.
"It's not easy in this life," he said. "You need to work hard. I know I'm tired after practice, but I need to learn English because it's good for me, for my future, to understand more basketball."
There are more than 80 international players in the NBA this season, and think about all of the adaptations they are expected to make in terms of where and how they live, what they eat, how they relate to their American teammates and coaches -- and all of these changes will be further complicated if the player cannot communicate.
"I was very patient with him because he's a great kid who wants to work hard, he wants to do well, he wants to please," Brooks said. "Now I can talk to him and we have good dialogue and he understands. I know I couldn't do it -- I couldn't go to another country and pick it up as quickly as he did."
Ibaka improved his English by joking with teammates whenever possible and by going to the theatre.
"My favorite movie for every time is Scarface," he said. "Tony Mantegna -- Scarface. I like the actor, it is a good movie."
Brooks likes the player Ibaka is becoming.
"He's very prideful, and it's a matter of principle with him,'' Brooks said. "He will stop practice and say, 'We are supposed to guard it this way, right, coach? Because this guy did not come do that.' So he's talking to make sure, because it's a black-and-white thing that this is what we are supposed to do. It's so much pride and determination to always do it right, and he's hard on himself too.''
When I asked Brooks for a prediction of Ibaka's future, the coach was the one at a loss for words.
"I don't really know, because the way he works and with his age, I don't know how good he's going to be," Brooks said. "I just know he's going to be good. The way he's improved this last year and a half is all because of [assistant] coach [Mark] Bryant and him -- they've got a great relationship and they work every day. Regardless of how many minutes he played the night before, regardless of whether it's an off day, they're in there, and a lot of times they come back in at night. So I don't know how good he'll be. I just know he's going to keep getting better."
1. From an NBA advance scout, on the Miami Heat: "If it were me, I would run plays to LeBron in the block and force the other team to have to stop him. But they're not doing that. They don't run post-ups for him. They do it on occasion for Wade, but LeBron should be getting the ball on either block and going to work."
2. From Brandon Roy, on the negative talk Oden has learned to accept: "He's had to develop that, and that's probably the toughest part about this business is dealing with the criticism. And they make it so personal. I think that's the part that hurts more; it's cool when it seems like it's criticism, but when it's personal, you feel like, You're attacking me? Why? What did I do? I got hurt. We can't control those injuries. You jumped and your knee was dislocated. You didn't go out there and say, 'I'm going to get hurt today.' But people make it out like you did.
"So I think that's the part where you've got to get thicker skin. You've got to harden up to it because it's not fair.
"But all I say then is, Is it fair that we're able to play this game and make a great living? Maybe that's not fair. Or is it fair to make billions of dollars like our owner? I don't know. We don't know. But all we can control is our effort and our attitude, and I think [Oden] has done a good job of that. If he continues to understand that all I can control today is my effort and my attitude, he'll be fine."
3. From an advance scout, on the durability of 33-year-old Manu Ginobili: "You say to yourself, 'What can we do with him defensively?' There is always that question of his durability, because he's such a reckless type of player. But now, at this stage of his career, he can shoot it better than he used to. [Ginobili leads the 6-1 Spurs with 21.9 points per game.] If you're with the Spurs, you want him to get in there and create, but it's not like he has to do that all of the time anymore. You love him because of how aggressively he plays and what he does, but you also worry about him because of what that does to him."
Most Improved Player is the award that is impossible to forecast before the season. But now the early results are in, and here are my leading candidates. I've included as many of the top leapers as I could find, including veterans (in italics) who are probably too old to win an award that is aimed at younger, developing players.
1. Paul Millsap, Jazz
2. Luis Scola, Rockets
3. Elton Brand, 76ers
4. Joakim Noah, Bulls
5. Richard Jefferson, Spurs
6. Russell Westbrook, Thunder
7. Glen Davis, Celtics
8. J.J. Hickson, Cavaliers
9. Dorell Wright, Warrior
10. Roy Hibbert, Pacers
11. Serge Ibaka, Thunder
12. Jrue Holiday, 76ers
13. Michael Beasley, Timberwolves
14. Mike Conley, Grizzlies
15. Toney Douglas, Knicks