The new Serge Ibaka draws attention (minus the tension) at Raptors training camp


QUEBEC CITY—There were difficult periods last season for Serge Ibaka — difficult and confusing — when he was a Raptors starter some nights, a backup some others, before settling into a vital role as a second-unit standout during the run to an NBA championship.

That title — the first of his career — made it all worthwhile, of course, but it was not easy and not always enjoyable for the veteran forward who had never before been bounced around as much.

He fought through it, though, and it helped him grow as a player and a teammate. He’s more at ease, more accepting, more content now than he’s ever been.

“Last year was tough,” Ibaka said after a training camp practice at Laval University here this week. “It could be tough for anybody. This year, I don’t really know, I don’t really care what direction, what you want me to do. I’m just ready. My mind is ready …

“Whatever it takes to help the team to get wins, I’m going to do it.”

Raptors coach Nick Nurse sees a change in attitude, personality and mental makeup this season. The coach knows that last season was hard for Ibaka at times, and Nurse was partially responsible as he tried to figure out how to use him with Jonas Valanciunas, and then with Marc Gasol for the stretch run.

“He seems much more comfortable this year, like light years more comfortable,” Nurse said of the 30-year-old Ibaka. “I mean last year it was a little edgy. You have to understand, a first-time coach and a bunch of new players and nobody really knew where they stood.

“There was a lot of tenseness around some of that stuff.”

Ultimately it worked itself out, with Ibaka coming off the bench behind Gasol to add a scoring spark to the second unit. It’s likely to be the same situation this year — Gasol and Pascal Siakam will start, with Ibaka backing up both — and now that it’s clear, Ibaka’s fine with it.

“I’m a lot better basketball player,” he said. “Not only skill-wise, but understanding the game, playing as a team, helping a team, helping your teammates to get better, and then doing all the little things to help your team without scoring.

“Of course you have to score, but just understanding the game, positioning myself where it can (help me and my teammate). And also being a great teammate, too. Since I’ve been here, since my first year and now, I’ve been getting better and better to be a good teammate on and off the court.”

In the infancy of training camp, the six-foot-10 Ibaka has shown an expansion of his game in ways the Raptors will need when the regular season begins. He’s not likely to be solely a primary scorer, and he’s shown better playmaking ability.

“He’s been really good at facilitating. He’s taking it in there and kicked it out quite a few times. He’s taken it in and dumped it off to Pascal a few times,” Nurse said. “So that’s probably been the single most impressive (thing).

“And again, just his — I don’t know, his camaraderie, his fit right now feels really good. That group of guys that’s playing together, that you would consider our (core) seven or eight, really look together out there and he’s a part of that.”

And a vital part of the team.

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“You have to adjust,” Ibaka said. “Making that sacrifice, it already made you a better teammate because it’s not easy.

“Personally, I’m going to come off the bench and try to be there for my teammates. It already made me a great teammate here.”

Doug Smith