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Toronto Raptors forward Serge Ibaka (9) celebrates a basket against the Charlotte Hornets with teammate Kawhi Leonard (2) during first half NBA basketball action in Toronto on Oct. 22, 2018.Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press

Still sweaty from his practice endeavours, Serge Ibaka walks into the afternoon scrum.

“Did you make the haggis yet?” someone asks him.

“Not yet,” Ibaka says.

“Saving that one?”

“Yeah, yeah,” Ibaka says brightly. “Saving it.”

This is a cheeky reference to Ibaka’s online cooking show, How Hungry Are You? The title is more of a dare than a question.

In it, Ibaka ambushes NBA friends with cuisine from his childhood. The first show featured cow’s tongue (“I wish I had this tongue!”). The most recent focused on worms (“Look how it’s moving! Hello!”)

People were surprised to see Ibaka’s career move into content creation. Not by the cooking part. By the having-a-sense-of-humour part.

For most of his year-and-a-half in Toronto, the 6-foot-10 Congolese has been less than a happy camper. Call it a continuum between a grumpy camper and an enraged camper.

Last season, if a stranger had greeted Ibaka with the haggis joke, he/she would most likely have got ‘the look’. It never feels great getting the look from someone the size of a Volkswagen tipped up on its back bumper, but Ibaka has a particular ability to crush you with his stare.

He’s used that superpower a lot in Toronto, though more often off the court than on it.

Initially viewed as the third key to a championship-calibre rotation, Ibaka could not seem to figure out how to be useful. Neither a power forward nor a centre, and not very good at occupying the spaces in between.

The 2017-18 season was an extended exercise in frustration during which Ibaka drew further and further into himself. By the end, he had grown as stiff, silent and easy to run around as a plinth.

There was no trade talk in the off-season because, owing to his US$20-million-plus annual salary, Ibaka was considered untradeable.

So when last we saw the Raptors in May, Ibaka had fallen into the category of a risk worth taking, but one that hadn’t worked out.

With all the to-and-fro of people coming and going over the summer, Ibaka found a different position – afterthought. The focus was now on Kawhi Leonard, Kyle Lowry, the new coach, several promising kids, the mascot, the guy who makes the energy shakes and, finally, Ibaka.

That did the trick. Perhaps in basketball, as in the kitchen, a watched pot never boils.

Ibaka has a new role as the bridge between the first and second units. Some games he will start, some he will come off the bench – a new one for a player of his stature.

Ibaka is often the only big on the floor, meaning he can play centre and no one gets in his way. In coach Nick Nurse’s system, he can drift in or out, shoot or roll, pick his own spots.

On the court, there has been a marked improvement in comportment, from intermittent apathy to consistent effort.

Off the court, the change is even more remarkable. A fun Ibaka, a chatty Ibaka, a smiling Ibaka (okay, that one’s still a work in progress).

“I’m playing the way I like to play basketball,” Ibaka says.

That’s a nine-word answer, which is eight words longer than a typical Serge-Ibaka-in-2017 reply.

Four games and four wins into their season, the really impressive thing about the Raptors is that while they have been good, they have also been choppy.

Often, nobody seems to know where anyone else is going during any given move. The marching order appears to be “Let Lowry decide and let Leonard finish.” As everyone learns new systems, it all has the whiff of improvisation.

It’s even more loosey-goosey in their own end. According to Ibaka, the unfamiliar group hasn’t yet been given permission to switch on defence.

“We will wait a bit,” Ibaka says. “Those kind of things [Nurse] is saving for later.”

This is a bit like saying everyone can drive the family car, but no one is allowed to turn the steering wheel. And yet the Raptors are still getting home safe each night.

On Wednesday, they’ll add another piece to what has been a 10-man rotation when guard Delon Wright returns from injury. The Raptors will play the Minnesota Timberwolves, another outfit in a state of flux (though Minnesota is not enjoying its nearly as much).

The Raptors have so many court-ready pieces they may have to start drawing lots over playing time. That’s a good problem, right up until it’s a point of friction and then it becomes a bad problem. But for now, let’s think positive.

“Just little things,” Wright says when asked what he can add to a team in mid-roll.

Wright is Ibaka’s opposite in many ways – smaller, sunnier and eager to please. But it is notable how both have found their way to the ‘anything to help the team’ mindset.

Everyone in sport says it, but the philosophy only works on a squad with the highest potential. No one’s going to happily sacrifice their numbers (and, as a result, their bargaining power) unless there is the possibility of a ring dangling at the end. The thought of June basketball turns all men into altruists.

Wright hasn’t changed in that regard. If he worked in a salt mine, this kid would whistle on his way into the pit each morning.

But now his approach is roster-wide. Everyone is getting the sense that things aren’t only good, but could still get much better.

On the subject of Ibaka, Wright is a little baffled. What? The rest of us are just getting this now? That Serge is a card?

“I feel like he’s more decisive,” Wright says. “He knows what he’s doing. So that’s a good thing.”

Wright grins.

“Did I say that right? ‘Decisive’? Just trying to be smart.”

So far, you and everybody else around here.

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