The battle for the third center spot just got more interesting.
President of basketball operations Lawrence Frank, spoke to the media on Friday and provided some insight into the recovery and status of stretch center Serge Ibaka.
After undergoing season-ending back surgery in June, Ibaka was credited by Frank for having a productive offseason. “He has a maniacal work ethic, he’s really attacked his rehab,” Frank said. “He’s made terrific progress”.
But despite the work he already has done, Ibaka is expected to start out training camp doing non-contact, one-on-one drills. Frank said, “He’ll start out in training camp, doing non-contact, and we’ll just assess his progress and where he’s going once we introduce contact at a certain point, it’ll be in a small group, probably one on one focus and then build up to that, and see how he responds to it. So we’ll just take it in phases.”
The coaching and medical staff will be monitoring Ibaka’s condition closely through it all, hopefully bearing more news as training camp starts up in earnest. “We’ll just take it in phases,” Frank says. “we’ll probably have more information as we get deeper into the month”.
Over the 2020-21 season, Ibaka missed 31 games during the regular season, primarily for what was labeled as “lower back tightness”, before missing the last 17 games of the playoffs due to back pain and subsequent surgery aimed at alleviating it.
When healthy, he was an important floor-spacing cog in Ty Lue’s offense, and solid rim-protecting anchor for Lue’s defense, posting season averages of 11.1 points, 6.7 rebounds, and 1.1 blocks in 23.3 minutes per game. He was the most talked about Clipper acquisition last offseason. His chemistry with Kawhi Leonard further seemed to encourage the latter to be more vocal as a leader in the locker room, and cemented Ibaka’s place in it as well.
Perhaps more immediately relevant is the impact Ibaka’s health has on training camp players vying for the third center spot. It seems to have come down to Harry Giles III and Isaiah Hartenstein, although Moses Wright could play himself into consideration as well, despite currently being listed as a forward. Giles, a 2017 first round pick, is an athletic, offensively skilled big with a career already hampered by injuries but who projects to be a high upside pick for the end of the rotation when healthy. Hartenstein, on the other hand, is a floor-spacing playmaker who showcased efficient productivity with the Cavaliers last season and who has previously shown to dominate the G-League.
There is more good news, however. Returning starting center Ivica Zubac has been confirmed to be healthy and ready to play for training camp. Zubac also watched the end of the Clippers season from the bench, as the iron man was battling an MCL sprain. Lue has also shown to be unafraid to utilize forwards Nic Batum or Marcus Morris as small ball centers, and we could see more of that to start the season if Ibaka is still limited.
Clippers players, staff, and fans alike will be monitoring Ibaka’s progress closely, wishing him the best. In the meantime, the Clippers will look continue staying competitive. Either through a “diamond in the rough” training camp find or the stepping up of a returning player, Lue and the Clippers may once again need to embody the “next man up” mentality and make it work.
Whether he’s in a jersey on the court or in a more elaborate article of fashion on the bench, however, Clippers fans should know that Ibaka will be doing everything he can to support the Clippers this season.