Serge Ibaka’s one of the top players available in the NBA’s free agent class of 2017. But while some of the other big names in the group have already locked down lucrative long-term deals, the former Oklahoma City Thunder, Orlando Magic and Toronto Raptors big man is still waiting for his market to shake out.
That could be because only one top power forward — Blake Griffin, new recipient of a five-year, $173 million pact — has committed to a new deal, and there are still some things to sort out. (If and when Paul Millsap makes his choice, things will likely heat up for Ibaka, as both fit the profile for teams looking for defensively versatile stretch fours.) It could also, however, be because some prospective suitors have concerns about Ibaka that stretch beyond the boundaries of the court.
These concerns, and the rumors that spark them, have been discussed to varying degrees of openness in the NBA community over the years, and were given voice recently by ESPN’s Zach Lowe and Bleacher Report’s Jordan Brenner during a chat on Bleacher Report’s “The Full 48” podcast:
Brenner: I’ve always been a Serge fan. There are few guys who can provide rim protection and 3-point shooting, purportedly, the way he can. He seems to be a player built for today’s game. And yet, he didn’t elevate Toronto in the way many of us thought and hoped, and you know, I don’t know if … there’s always been the rumblings that he’s actually older than he is listed.
Lowe: Look, as uncomfortable as it is to say that, the league — not the league office, [but rather NBA] teams — believe that he’s older than his listed age [of 27 years old]. So whether he is or not, and what are the ethical issues of saying that, I don’t know. But it affects the free agency market for him.
Brenner: We’re not practicing NBA birtherism here, but that is the scuttlebutt.
The rumor has been cited as “a source of speculation” in reports about Ibaka’s trade value, often attached to a suggestion that a team chose not to pull the trigger on an Ibaka deal because said team didn’t want to give up the farm for a player “whose chronological age might be a bit more advanced than his listed age.” It has also been presented as a potential explanation for “why his game has plateaued over the past few years, during what should be the prime of his career,” with Ibaka having transitioned over the course of his eight NBA seasons from a power-dunking, board-crashing paint patroller to a player who more typically spaces the floor on offense and gets his blocks sliding over from the weak side in help defense.
Ibaka’s heard this all before. As he sat in unrestricted free agency for the first time in his career, waiting for offers that might be slower in coming in part because of it, he decided to say something about it.
He issued a public statement via Twitter on Saturday that didn’t specifically address the age issue, but rather hit at the broader issue of rumor-mongering and general accountability:
The full text of Ibaka’s five-paragraph statement:
I am proud of where I come from and of my heritage. I am also very proud of the hard work I put to arrive to where I am right now as a basketball player.
I am very disappointed with the small part of society that spreads rumors and creates news based on stereotypes and without any proof. I’m sad that to this day there are still prejudices based on your origin and, as Africans, sometimes we need to take a stand.
I was born in the capital of the Republic of Congo, Brazzaville. A city with a population bigger than 1 million. A city with hospitals, a civil registry and an administration. I was born in a caring, loving and united family. I was not born in the jungle.
I know we live in a fast news world, where rumors and scoops rule, but I think media should take their responsibility seriously when talking about important matters that can hurt people. I know who I am and where I come from, and so do the people that really know me.
I’m sad that many people will have read a rumor and will have made a false assumption that can last forever, while they maybe will not read what I’m writing now. What’s sure is that, no matter what, nobody can take away from me the pride for my origins and the love that I have for basketball.
Ibaka notes that he’s not alone in facing these questions. Other African players, including Thon Maker, Bismack Biyombo and Dikembe Mutombo, have had to deal with similar rumors. So, too, have some non-African players, like China’s Yi Jianlian and Turkey’s Ersan Ilyasova. Two recent NBA draft picks were found to have been older than their listed age: Tanguy Ngombo of Qatar, whom the Minnesota Timberwolves drafted back in 2011, and Shabazz Muhammad of the United States, also drafted by the Wolves, in 2013.
Whether the lack of immediate hot-and-heavy interest in locking Ibaka down stems from the age rumor, concerns about having watched him generally struggle to make the sort of game-changing impact in Toronto that many had hoped, or something else, it remains to be seen what kind of market will develop for the Congolese shot-blocker. Michael Grange of Sportsnet in Toronto reported Saturday that the Raptors are “confident” they can bring Ibaka back with a new deal, though the Houston Rockets and Miami Heat also reportedly have interest in his services.
Ibaka ranks No. 7 on The Vertical’s Fab 50 Free Agents list for the class of 2017, and stands as the fifth best available free agent now that Stephen Curry and Griffin have come off the board.
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