Thunder’s Serge Ibaka is the new kid on the blocks


We’ve been hearing for some months now about a new African sensation that has arrived this year in Spain ... a true physical/athletic monster.


June 28, 2007

Meet your Oklahoma City Thunder, whether you Lakers fans want to or not.

At 17, Congolese-born Serge Ibaka had yet to play organized basketball. At 20, he’s in rotation for the Thunder, a 6-10 version of Russell Westbrook, and one more way the Lakers just learned they’re not young anymore.

Ibaka is the embodiment of the rising Thunder, not yet a starter but no longer a rumor, bounding his way out of anonymity in this, his first NBA season, following his two in Spain, which were, as he puts it, “my first time to play basketball, organizational.”

That’s organized basketball, of course. Not that he’s ahead of schedule, about five months shy of his 21st birthday, but....

“Last July when we first brought him over, I had a difficult time, frankly, just communicating with him,” Thunder Coach Scott Brooks says.

“He had very little English. I was like, ‘Jump high. Run fast. Block shots.’

“He takes English lessons every week. Now I can talk to him, but I have to say it twice sometimes to make sure he understands it.

“But he’s a fearless competitor. He’s serious about getting better every play. We all like what he brings to the team ... a protect-the-basket-block-shots-alter-shots mentality. And he just gives up his body.”

That’s some body too.

Picture Hakeem Olajuwon arriving from Nigeria at 17, redshirting his freshman year at the University of Houston and you’ve got Ibaka.

Born in Brazzaville, one of 18 children, Ibaka was a gossip item among European scouts who had only heard of him when he joined CB L’Hospitalet in 2007.

One season there got him an invitation to play in the 2008 Nike Hoop Summit with the international team against top U.S. preps, including USC-bound DeMar DeRozan, UCLA-bound Jrue Holiday and North Carolina-bound Ed Davis.

The U.S. won by 20. Ibaka scored eight points with eight rebounds and two blocks but looked spectacular doing it.

Two months later, he became a first-round pick — technically, the last one the Seattle SuperSonics ever made before moving, but the Thunder left him in Spain for a year, with Rico Manrea in a faster league.

After that, he was ready for prime time, even if no one, including Thunder officials, expected it.

For the first four months this season, he averaged 17 minutes. In March and April, he went to 21 with Brooks leaving him in at the end of games.

In this series, he is averaging 7.7 points and 2.2 blocks in 24 minutes, including his seven blocks in Game 2, when the Lakers got a sobering glimpse of the future.

“There are a lot of guys who played AAU ball and up who don’t have his basketball IQ,” Brooks says. “He understands the game and he understands what we want.”

With the long, athletic Kevin Durant, Thabo Sefolosha, Westbrook and Ibaka, the Thunder led the NBA in blocks, without putting anyone in the top 25, although one or two of them look ready to crash the party.

Ibaka has already learned enough English to conduct a conversation. It wasn’t that hard, seeing how he already spoke three languages.

“I speak Congolese, French, Spanish and a little English,” he says.

“Very little English,” observes Westbrook, sitting next to him in the Thunder dressing room.

Ibaka also speaks Shot Block. Like his English, it’s coming fast.

Buy Lakers playoff tickets here

Clicking on Green Links will take you to a third-party e-commerce site. These sites are not operated by the Los Angeles Times. The Times Editorial staff is not involved in any way with Green Links or with these third-party sites.