Serge Ibaka Love, or “Self-Portrait In Three Colors”

Serge Ibaka came off the bench for the Spanish national team in yesterday’s Eurobasket 2011 exhibition match against France. He scored nine points on 4-7 shooting, part of a balanced attack that had France reeling from the onset. Looking solely at the numbers, it was a modest performance. Still, it was a far cry from our last encounter with Ibaka — Game 5 of the 2011 Western Conference Finals where he had more fouls (4) than points (2).

While four made baskets isn’t much to discuss, the execution definitely deserves mention. Ibaka displayed the kind of confidence in his jumper that would compel coach Scott Brooks to declare Ibaka’s midrange jumpshot the best on the Thunder. In the 17 games Ibaka played in last season’s playoffs, about 39% of Ibaka’s made field goals were jump shots, according to Synergy Sports. It’s an increasingly vital area to his game, and his talents were on full display in the match. His spot up game was evident, but most promising was a turnaround jumper from inside the free throw line that left just enough to the imagination. Ibaka’s offensive potential is scary; scarier still, his skills are still rudimentary. He has the form and release down. He’s nimble and agile. His footwork is constantly improving. The only thing left is combining these isolated elements into a cohesive package and attaining (and maintaining) consistency.

Playing behind both Pau and Marc Gasol can only help, though that probably goes without saying. Ibaka has consistently been known throughout his career as a quick learner, and there might not be a better experience for him at this stage in his career than learning from two of the most fundamentally sound big men in the world. That kind of tutelage might’ve been worth the process of nationalization itself. Though through any lens, Ibaka’s decision to become a Spanish citizen offers a look at Ibaka’s commitment to this game.

“Spain has become like a second home for me a new country. If I am the one I am today, it is in part due to my days playing over there. I never stopped learning and getting better when I was in Spain. I felt at home, like a Spaniard.”

via Serge Ibaka: Spain is like a second home for me |

National pride has a lot to do with international sporting competition, but reducing the games to a symbolic flag-waving competition ignores elements to the experience that stray away from nationalism. The yearly gathering of the world’s best and brightest talents serves as a model U.N. of sorts, advancing the language of sports — a language that with every passing year grows in its universality.

Serge Ibaka became a nationalized citizen and is playing for the Spanish team despite only spending three years in the country as a teenager. But playing for a country means more than just having blood ties to the land. Ultimately, beyond the national colors, it’s still about basketball. Spain was the country that fostered his development, expanded his understanding of the game, and opened doors to opportunities that weren’t previously there. This isn’t necessarily a debt being paid, just a player mindful of his journey — and the people in it — doing his best to say “thank you.”

Pictured above (on the left — that is obviously Arnold Schwarzenegger on the right) is Sergei Bakalov, a personal fitness/dance instructor based in Columbus, Ohio. Any similarities Bakalov’s name might share with the title of this piece (“Serge Ibaka Love”) is just an awesome coincidence. 

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