Masai Ujiri first laid eyes on Serge Ibaka more than a decade ago in South Africa, where he watched the Congolese youngster roll for 20 points and 20 rebounds in a FIBA Africa U18 Championship game.
On Tuesday, after many years of admiring the power forward, Ujiri was able to trade for him. In one of his biggest moves yet as president of the Toronto Raptors, Ujiri made a deal with the Orlando Magic, acquiring Ibaka in exchange for Terrence Ross and a first-round pick in the 2017 NBA draft.
The move addresses Toronto’s long-standing need at the power forward position. It came with the Raptors in a tailspin, having lost 10 of their past 14 games and having fallen to fifth from second in the Eastern Conference as they headed into Tuesday night’s game in Chicago against the Bulls.
“He’s a hell of a competitor. He brings playoff experience – he’s played in the NBA finals,” Ujiri said in a Tuesday night news conference. “I think everybody knows who Serge is. He’s a warrior. Every time he steps on the court, he competes. He gives us good rim protection, he’s a good defender and he can play multiple positions, which will help us.”
Ibaka is the first star power forward the Raptors have had since Chris Bosh. The 27-year-old defensive-minded player is averaging 15.1 points, 6.8 rebounds and 1.6 blocks a game while shooting a career-best 38.8 per cent from three-point range this season. But he didn’t have quite the defensive impact projected by the Magic, who dwell in the basement of the East with a 21-36 record.
Ibaka was born in Republic of the Congo but moved to Spain as a teen and has represented the latter country in international competition, including at the 2012 Olympics, at which he earned a silver medal. He also played professionally in Spain. Ujiri, who was coaching the Nigerian junior national team when he first saw Ibaka in 2006, has worked with him over the years on the Basketball Without Borders program.
Ibaka spent the first seven years of his NBA career with the Oklahoma City Thunder. In June, he was traded to the Magic in a draft-night deal for Victor Oladipo, Ersan Ilyasova and the rights to the 11th pick of the night, Domantas Sabonis.
The 6-foot-10, 235-pound forward adds much-needed floor spacing and shot blocking. He was named to the NBA all-defensive first team three times (2012, 2013 and 2014) and led the league in blocks four years in a row (2010-14).
The Raptors started the season strong, but it soon became apparent they hadn’t effectively filled the gap left by the departure of key rebounder and defender Bismack Biyombo.
The team is currently 32-23, and its defensive ranking is 17th in the league.
“I think our team needed a boost, to be honest,” Ujiri said. “We’re at the point where everyone knows – it’s not rocket science – that was a missing link on our team. Patrick [Patterson] has done a great job, but we needed a couple of guys in that position. [Ibaka] is one of the better power forwards in the league, and hopefully he fits in with us.”
Ross, drafted eighth over all by Toronto in 2012, averaged 9.5 points and 2.6 rebounds in 363 games (132 starts) as a Raptor. His departure will mean more minutes for second-year player Norman Powell.
The 26-year-old Ross quickly changed his profile on Twitter to Orlando Magic guard/forward and tweeted: “Toronto thank you for all the memories, thanks to the amazing fans. Couldn’t of been drafted to a better city. Thanks to my team. All luv.”
Toronto’s final game before the all-star break will be Wednesday night at home against the Charlotte Hornets. Ibaka will be in Toronto, but Ujiri was not sure if he would be in uniform yet.Report Typo/Error