What’s a fair expectation for Serge Ibaka with the Milwaukee Bucks?

LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA - NOVEMBER 07 (Photo by Katelyn Mulcahy/Getty Images)
LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA - NOVEMBER 07 (Photo by Katelyn Mulcahy/Getty Images) /

Although it appeared to be one of the more under-the-radar moves of the trade deadline, since it impacts the title picture, there has been a decent amount of attention paid to the Milwaukee Bucks acquiring Serge Ibaka.

When you factor in what the Bucks gave up in Donte DiVincenzo, a restricted free agent after the season who could have more impactful years left in his career than Ibaka, but the veteran big man fills a need now.

There’s been a lot of discussion about what the Bucks should expect from Ibaka and how that vastly impacts how we should look at the trade. That’s totally fair! If Ibaka is washed and can’t play, I sure would rather have DiVincenzo. But if he’s over the back problems, then it will be a solid bit of business for the defending champs.

What can fans expect from Serge Ibaka’s performance with the Milwaukee Bucks?

For those of you that are thinking you’ll be seeing the Ibaka that helped the Toronto Raptors defeat the Bucks, I regret to inform you that will not be happening.

For those of you that think Ibaka is completely washed and is a shell of his former self, I regret to inform you that is also not going to happen.

What we’ll likely see from the 32-year-old is somewhere in the middle that will be filled with some inconsistency, but also flashes of the Ibaka that was once one of the most dominant and feared defenders in basketball.

At the start of the season for the Los Angeles Clippers, Ibaka played in just two of their first 16 games and a total of nearly 14 minutes in those games. It was the beginning of a road to recovery from offseason back surgery that took him out of the Clippers’ playoff run last season.

Even when he did start playing more, he still wasn’t the same. In his first 17 games, he averaged over two fouls per game in 15 minutes a night. Per Cleaning the Glass (subscription required), he had a foul rate of 5.6 percent which was in the 13th percentile for his position group and the worst of his career since his rookie season.

A rookie with a foul rate that high is usually due to a lack of technique and discipline, which they develop over time. When you’re a 13-year NBA veteran, it likely means you’ve lost a step and need to foul to not give up points.

However, things have changed once the calendar switched to 2022. In his last 18 games with the Clippers, he averaged 1.1 fouls per game in similar minutes played and a 3.1 percent foul rate which is in the 73rd percentile for his position group.

First of all, that should tell you how tough it will be for Brook Lopez to get back anywhere close to form when he returns from back surgery. It should also tell you that Ibaka is feeling more and more like himself, which is a great sign for the Bucks.

Beyond the fouls, he’s also finding his shot-blocking rhythm. In his first 17 games, he had a 2.8 percent block rate. Not bad, but it’s not what we’re used to from Ibaka, who has a career 5.5 percent block rate.

In those last 18 games, though, he’s posted a 5.2 percent block rate and is averaging nearly a block per game in under 16 minutes per game.

Now, the Bucks don’t have the big man depth that the Clippers do and Isaiah Hartenstein had passed him on the depth chart, so it’s fair to expect that the veteran will play more minutes than he did in Los Angeles.

He averaged nearly 25 minutes in his final three games with the Clippers and started two of them. He’s been able to handle big minute loads as he’s gone through the second half of the season. Still, the Bucks will likely want to slow-play things and he’ll only be asked to be a backup anyway.

Much of what Ibaka will be asked to do is protect the rim in a drop coverage scheme when he’s playing with either Giannis Antetokounmpo or Bobby Portis. The Bucks have struggled when Portis is asked to be the only big man on the floor as they lack any form of rim protection.

Ibaka’s recent play is likely what enticed the Bucks to pursue him in a trade and they are likely confident that he’ll be able to maintain that level of performance down the stretch until Lopez returns and finds his old self.

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Ibaka is poised to provide a big boost for the defending champs as they look to finish strong post-All Star break.