Peace, Love and Thunderstanding: Summer Serge

(Editors note:  Ladies, don’t say I never did anything for you.)

To put this in terms that Oklahomans can understand, this portion of the Summer is the NBA’s version of “recruiting season.”  The NBA Draft was a couple of weeks ago, free agency just officially began, and teams are putting together their roster for next season.

One thing that gets lost in this shuffle is the NBA’s equivalent of “Spring practices.”  Since it is held during the Summer, they call it Summer League.

Summer League is where NBA GM’s send their draft picks and other young players (or as the Thunder refer to such players:  their roster) to improve during the off-season and how they test the way borderline free agent prospects (or “walk ons”) might operate in the team’s system.  Like, Spring practices for college football, the play is atrocious and is only interesting because there is nothing better to watch.

As I write this, the Thunder have completed their first two games of the Orlando Summer League and are 1-1.  Of course, me telling you the team’s record might be the most meaningless information you receive today.  The only thing that might possibly rival the worthlessness of the Thunder’s game results will be the player statistics I am about to impart on you.

Just as one would expect the actual NBA players who are on the Thunder team are dominating.  Russell Westbrook (22pts, 8.5 ast per game and only nine turnovers through two games) looks like a future hall of famer, James Harden (44% from three) is the odds on favorite for rookie of the year, and D.J. White is making the case for Most Improved Player.  The problem?  When the NBA season comes around, these guys will be guarded by world class athletes and not D-League rejects.

What I have learned about Summer League statistics is that seeing a player succeed is not much of an indicator for anything, but if a player struggles, their hope of contributing during the regular season is pretty much nil.  I’m looking at you Kyle Weaver.

All of that taken into account, the revelation during the early days in Orlando has been the legend of Serge Ibaka.  Going back to college football similes, the drafting of Serge Ibaka with the 24th overall pick of the 2008 draft was like Bob Stoops tendering a scholarship offer to a one star athlete from an eight man football district (note:  that actually happened).  Initially, every fan of the team goes through the WTF stage.  Only the most avid draft follower had ever heard the nameof the Congolese power forward, and those had no reason to expect that Ibaka would ever make it to the United States.  At the time he was drafted, my assumption was that Presti intended to stow him overseas for several years at which point he would either A) be good enough that he could make more money by playing overseas than his rookie NBA contract would allow or B) be a complete bust who would come over and take the $1.5/MM guaranteed by his rookie contract because he couldn’t keep up with foreign players.

Of course, the next stage was also familiar to college football fans:  mythologizing about the unknown prospect.  Just as the mysterious recruit is labeled as a hidden gem, Ibaka was literally compared (favorably) to Dwight Howard on Thunder message boards.

The thing is, during his first two games in Orlando, on the heal of news that he would join the team during the 2009/10 season, Ibaka actually lived up to some of the hype.  Personally, I expected an extremely raw, but athletic, kid who would look lost on the floor but occasionally do something spectacular athletically…kind of like Saer Sene used to do.  Instead, he looked somewhat polished.  Starting for the Summer League team, he took a nice entry pass from Shaun Livingston, drop stepped his defender and spun nicely for a quick lay up within the first minute of the game.

Sure, I said that the results of a Summer League game were of no merit, and I meant that.  It wasn’t so much that Ibaka scored there or the fact that he averaged thirteen points in his first two outings that impressed me.  The thing to take from Ibaka’s performance is that he actually has some basketball acumen.  While he still had some of those moments where he looked out of control or lost on the floor, the majority of the time, one could not tell that he was drafted as a project.  If his legend turns out to be more fact, I may end up eating the words I wrote about Sam Presti as a talent evaluator from last week.