Serge Ibaka was wearing a winter tuque and a Toronto Raptors hoodie along with bright red sneakers, as he entered a packed news conference room Wednesday night. He’d arrived from sunny Florida to chilly Ontario less than 24 hours earlier, and the 6-foot-10, 235-pound power forward was already dressing the part.
The newest Raptor had a brief introduction to the media before Wednesday’s game against the visiting Charlotte Hornets. It was a standing-room-only gathering at Toronto’s Air Canada Centre that lasted just eight minutes before the big man was whisked off to meet coach Dwane Casey for the first time and attend the team’s pregame walk-through.
The Congo-born Ibaka arrived in the most intriguing deal the Raptors had made in years. The trade with the Orlando Magic had exchanged Terrence Ross plus a first-round draft pick for Ibaka – the rim-protecting, floor-spacing specialist expected to fill the Raptors’ biggest void: the power-forward spot.
Ibaka didn’t play with his new team Wednesday night. Having lost 10 of their past 14 games, they could have used him. Yet, he had arrived on an overnight flight, and with the Raptors travelling back from their Tuesday night game in Chicago and preparing for Wednesday’s contest at home, there was little time to bring him up to speed on the team’s plays.
The 27-year-old player acknowledged that his situation in Toronto shares similarities with the one he experienced as a member of the Oklahoma City Thunder from 2009-16, before he was traded to Orlando. He reunites with Toronto assistant coach Rex Kalamian, who had been on OKC’s staff during its memorable run to the 2012 NBA final. There, Ibaka played for a team that ran everything through an all-star backcourt. He agreed that playing with Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan will be a lot like teaming with Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant.
“A team like this, I’m just going to try to bring my experience and my defensive game, my toughness, my energy,” said Ibaka, who has three times been chosen for the NBA’s all-defensive first team. “When you have guys like Kyle and DeMar you don’t need an offensive, scoring guy really. You need a guy who can bring some physicality and defensive plays, energy, running up and down. Those are the things I’m really going to bring.”
There is much speculation about how he could be used, since he has experience at both the No. 4 and No. 5 positions.
“He could be power forward, and also when we go small, the centre position is a possibility,” Casey said. “One thing he adds to our team is just overall physical toughness and in this league, in playoff basketball, in big-game situations, in fourth-quarter time, you’ve got to have that physical toughness and athleticism, speed and quickness at multiple positions.”
He was greeted at the airport by the Open Court documentary crew that follows the Raptors, but Wednesday’s walk-through was his first meeting with new teammates.
He’s friends with another Toronto assistant coach, Patrick Mutombo, who is also from the Congo. And Ibaka has heard plenty about the city from a former Raptor he got to know well as a member of the Magic these past few months – Bismack Biyombo.
“Since we met, me and Biz, he always tell me great stories about the city, the fans here, the team,” said Ibaka, who speaks four languages – Lingala, French, English and Spanish. “He loves it here.”
It was Toronto’s final game before the all-star break, and the players don’t return to the court until Feb. 24, so Ibaka’s debut as a Raptor will have to wait.
“It’s not gonna be just like one game, boom, we’re back just because Serge walks in the door,” Casey said. “It’s a huge help, don’t get me wrong, but he’s not a lone saviour. It’s everybody, collectively, pulling together.”Report Typo/Error