OKLAHOMA CITY – You’re the coach of the Thunder and you’re drawing up a play to get a good look to pop a mid-range jumper.
Who’s shooting it for you? Kevin Durant? Russell Westbrook? Kevin Martin?
Scott Brooks, the actual coach of the Oklahoma City Thunder, said he’ll take Serge Ibaka any day.
“He’s one of the best pop guys in the league at that position,” Brooks said. “A 17-foot jump shot, I would take that shot probably over anybody on our team.”
Look, no one’s saying that with 1.2 seconds to go in a tie game that Brooks is drawing up the game-winner to go through Ibaka to shoot a 17-footer. At the same time, no one’s saying he isn’t.
Brooks didn’t hand out the compliment for the sake of pumping up his fourth-year power forward more known for his swats than his swishes. That fact is that Ibaka is riding an offensive surge this season that has him ranked 11th in scoring among the league’s power forwards at 14.0 points a game, five points more than last season’s average.
It has greatly aided in OKC’s explosive offense that is posting more assists (22.1 per game) and scoring at a slightly higher clip (105.4) than it did with James Harden.
“Every time we play against a team, they go to [concentrate on] Russell and Kevin, so we need somebody to step up,” Ibaka said. “That’s what I’m trying to do.”
The stats bear out Brooks’ trust in Ibaka.
Ibaka ranks No. 1 among power forwards in field-goal percentage at 58.7 percent, a mark that would blow away his previous season-best of 54.3 percent (accomplished in both his first and second seasons).
And yes, you’d be correct if you’re thinking the chiseled, 6-foot-10, 235-pounder from the Congo gets a lot of buckets at point-blank range. He’s one of the best finishers in the restricted area, converting 74 percent of those attempts. And when he gets fouled down there, he’s making 83.7 percent of his free throws, third-best among power forwards.
However, you’d be wrong if you’re thinking the majority of his shots come inside the restricted area or even from within the key as a whole. Of his 225 total shot attempts this season, 84, or 37.3 percent, have come in the restricted area. Only 23 shots — not percent, but shots — have come inside the rest of the key.
So the remaining 104 attempts, 46.2 percent of his total shot attempts, are mid-range jumpers, shots that come from outside the paint and extend to the 3-point arc.
He’s connected on 57 of his 104 jumpers from that range, a whopping 55 percent. It’s a tremendous improvement from the last two seasons, when he shot 43 and 41 percent, respectively.
Ibaka has made himself a mid-range monster.
“I keep working, man, keep working, keep working,” Ibaka said after he scored 14 points on 7-for-14 shooting in last Friday’s win over the Los Angeles Lakers. “Now I have my confidence and I’m enjoying my time.”
If 14 shots seems like a lot on a team with Durant, Westbrook and Martin, it is. Yet already 11 times in the Thunder’s 22 games, Ibaka has claimed double-digit shot attempts. That happened 14 times in 66 games last season, and 21 times in 82 games in 2010-11.
It leads back to Brooks’ increasing comfort level with Ibaka taking a 17-footer when he’s got a pair of lethal All-Stars and a sharpshooter in Martin. Again, the stats bear it out.
Ibaka’s mid-range shot — remember, he’s hitting it at 55 percent — is far and away the most accurate on the team, if not the entire league. Durant shoots it at 45 percent (55-for-123), Martin at 37 percent (24-for-65) and Westbrook, so good at that high-riser from the free throw line, is at 35 percent (40-for-115).
Heck, you want more? Here’s a comparison with other power forwards, plus other top scorers, regardless of position: Harden from mid-range is shooting 34 percent; LeBron James is shooting 35 percent; Zach Randolph is at 40 percent; Blake Griffin is at 41 percent; LaMarcus Aldridge is at 42 percent; Kobe Bryant and Carmelo Anthony are both at 47 percent; and Kevin Garnett is at 52 percent.
It’s no wonder that Ibaka’s coach and teammates are calling his number.
“It definitely helps,” Brooks said of Ibaka’s improved shooting. “He’s playing with more offensive confidence and our team is playing with more offensive confidence giving it to him.”