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SPORTS: Oklahoma City Thunder

Faith Rewarded: Ibaka Showing OKC Extension Was Right Move

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OKLAHOMA CITY -

Much was expected of Serge Ibaka when he received a massive, four-year, $48 million extension in August of 2012.

Now, in the first year the extension kicks in, Ibaka is turning into a more dominant NBA big man and rewarding the Thunder's investment in him.

The contract seemed like a lot for a young, still-raw center that hadn't averaged more than 10 points a game or 7.6 rebounds a game in any of his three NBA seasons.

As is often the case in the NBA, the market grossly over-estimates the value of a player, causing salaries to be majorly inflated. Was Ibaka worth that much at the time of his extension? No, but because another NBA team would have paid that much for him, Oklahoma City was forced to pay it or explore other options.

Expectations were raised even more when the Thunder traded James Harden to Houston right before last season began. OKC had essentially chosen to keep Ibaka over Harden, a move that didn't sit well with Thunder fans at first.

That looked to be an even poorer decision last year when Harden exploded in Houston and Ibaka average a mere 13.2 points and 7.7 rebounds.

Finally, it appears Ibaka is becoming the player Oklahoma City thought he would be when they gave him an extension in 2012. So far this year, Ibaka is averaging 14.5 points per game and 10.1 rebounds per game, easily the biggest number in his career.

Ibaka started the season slowly. With no Russell Westbrook to take away attention from him and Kevin Durant, Ibaka responded very poorly. In the first three games—the last of which had Westbrook back in the lineup—Ibaka shot 11-of-40 from the field, good for a measly 27.5 percent. It was woefully clear Ibaka was not ready to fill the role of second fiddle to Durant.

Ibaka is not being asked to do that. While Westbrook's injury exposed Ibaka to a certain degree, it's impossible to expect that to be the norm. Westbrook's return has had major implications for the entire team, but no one has been affected more than Ibaka. Beginning with the game after Westbrook returned to the lineup, Ibaka is averaging 16.4 points and 10.2 rebounds per game on 64 percent shooting.

Ibaka still doesn't have much of a back-to-the-basket game, something h still needs to develop. However, he's made the most of the work he has put in on his jump shot. So far this season, Ibaka is hitting 52 percent of shots from what is considered mid-range, per NBA.com. For comparison, Durant is hitting 40 percent on mid-range shots.

60 percent of Ibaka's shots this season have come from outside five feet, so his 53.6 percent shooting for the season is a very good number; one that continues to rise as the season progresses.

Just as important to the Thunder's success is Ibaka's rebounding improvement. Ibaka gets a lot of help from his backcourt—Durant and Westbrook are second and third on the team in rebounding, respectively—but not a lot of help from fellow frontcourt mate, Kendrick Perkins, who is averaging just 3.8 boards per game.

Ibaka has been averaging around 7.5 rebounds per game the last three years—he became a full-time starter during the 2010-11 season—so the increase to 10.1 boards per game so far this season has been a pleasant surprise for the Thunder.

Last season, Ibaka didn't grab 10 rebounds in a game until the 12th game of the season, and only had two games of 10 or more rebounds in the first month of the season. This year, Ibaka grabbed 10 rebounds in the first game of the season and already has seven games of 10 or more rebounds, with nine rebounds in two more games.

It's a very encouraging sign for the Thunder who has been very patient during Ibaka's development the past four years. Ibaka just turned 24 in September, so he still has a lot of time to continue to grow and develop as a player, something that needs to happen, as there is plenty Ibaka can do to get better. It will be impossible to say whether or not Ibaka over Harden was the right choice, however, it's beginning to look like the Thunder made an excellent choice in showing faith in Ibaka.

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