Serge Ibaka appears primed to make big strides as a player this season

Serge Ibaka posted career-highs across the board in the 2012-13 season. Now, he's got all the tools to surpass those numbers when the regular season starts up in a few weeks

Two seasons ago, the Oklahoma City Thunder made their first NBA Finals appearance as an organization. However, that year they fell in just five games to LeBron James and the Miami Heat, the NBA's superteam. It was a disappointment, certainly, for the Thunder to come so close to a championship and then lose in such dominant fashion at the hands of the Heat.

However, it was great for the franchise to reach the league's biggest stage, even if it did not come away with a Larry O'Brien Trophy afterwards.

The 2012-13 season was not as successful for Scott Brooks and the Thunder, as Oklahoma City did not even reach the Western Conference Finals, losing in the semifinals to Memphis. Although the absence of Russell Westbrook due to injury severely handicapped Kevin Durant's squad, the poor showing versus the Grizzlies was still surprising and notable. Thunder players, fans, and media around the team expected more than an early postseason exit.

Clearly, though, this year will be different for the Thunder. Westbrook is healthy and the young players on Oklahoma City have another year of NBA and playoff experience under them. Another notable change with the Thunder is the continued rise of forward Serge Ibaka from role-playing defensive specialist to all-around stud.

Ibaka, a first-round draft pick of the then-SuperSonics in 2008, did not start a game in his rookie season and was a raw and unrefined athletic monster who could jump out of the gym but was not experienced enough with the American style of the game to be effective. He shot a dismal 63 percent from the free throw line and scored just 6.3 points per game in his 18.1 minutes.

The next year, Serge played 82 games and started more than half of them, playing almost 50 percent more per game, hitting a cool 75 percent of his free throws, blocking nearly 2.5 shots per contest, and even approaching a double-double (9.9 and 7.6). He started to look more like a complete NBA player than just a guy who could block tons of shots.

The next season brought more of the same from the Congolese big man, as he kept most of his averages roughly the same except for the 1.3 blocks per game spike he obtained.

This confirmed him as one of the league's best shot-blockers, a fact that was basically assumed before anyway. Then, the next year, he developed a mid-range jumpshot, spiking his scoring clip to over 10 points per, a career first. He also averaged 10 field goals attempts, an increase of about 2.5 per from the year prior.

Now, as he heads into the upcoming campaign, Ibaka is only improving as a player and has the ability, talent, and skills to surpass the high watermarks he set in 2012.

From's Jeff Caplan: "I'm working on my game and creating my own shot," Ibaka said. "That is something I've been doing all summer, so I hope it will pay off….I've been working on putting the ball on the floor and post moves."

All signs are pointing to an incredible year for both Ibaka and the rest of his Thunder teammates. If those signs are accurate, then the Grizzlies, Spurs, and other Western Conference contenders have a real problem on their hands, a problem the Miami Heat (or the unlikely team that dethrones them) may have to deal with as well.

About Josh Burton

I'm a New York native who has been a Nets season ticket holder, in both New Jersey and now Brooklyn, since birth. Northwestern University (Medill School of Journalism) '18