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For Serge Ibaka place, not money, was the priority

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It took a few weeks, but Serge Ibaka’s contract coronation is officially complete.

With a few schedule conflicts interfering like Ibaka traveling to Africa for a few weeks and Sam Presti getting married, the Thunder finally held Ibaka’s post-extension press conference Monday at the Boys and Girls Club in Oklahoma City.

It was mostly your standard “we’re excited” “I’m excited” “you’re excited” type of presser, but Ibaka did want to make something clear: He’s a fan of money. He has 18 brothers and sisters, he likes clothes and he’s a human being with a brain. Of course he likes money. It’s just that it isn’t the most important thing to him, at least not when it came to signing his extension with the Thunder.

“Man, I’m going to tell you,” he said with that awesome rapid fire African accent, “you know, money is very important too. It’s important for everybody here. Because everybody wants to work hard to have a good life. Same like you. But also, it’s not the only thing. Money will not make you happy. It’s most important that you need to be happy. You need to do something you want to do. I have a contract right now that will help me, my family, everything. But it’s not all.”

Of course what Ibaka is referencing is his decision to sign for less than what his likely market value would’ve been had he gone to restricted free agency next summer. Ibaka signed a four-year extension worth just under $50 million, obviously a very nice contract, but one that’s probably not all he could’ve gotten. His desire was to remain in Oklahoma City, plain and simple.

“For me it was important for me to stay, and finish what we started. And I think we can do it,” he said. “And I think this is my place, where I need to be. I don’t care what people say about this city or big city, no, I’m happy here.”

The ink barely dried on Ibaka’s extension before people started turning to James Harden’s situation. And with Ibaka proactively talking about money and his decision not to chase every penny, it makes one wonder: Did he do that with Harden in mind? Does he feel like he left money on the table?

“Man, that’s something I was wishing [to get a new contract],” Ibaka said. “I don’t want to think about to give up or to not. It was most important for me to stay. If you be thinking about you give up or no, it can’t work like that. If you want to do something with your heart, you need to forget about if I would give or give up. Just do it for your happiness. And I’m very happy.”

If you didn’t notice, Ibaka is pretty happy. Also happy: Sam Presti and the Thunder.

“When you have an opportunity to keep somebody in your organization that’s helped create an identity and is committed to those ideals, you have to work hard to figure that out and make it happen, on both ends of things,” Presti said.

I find that quote potentially revealing. Because you could easily apply every bit of it to Harden and his future. There’s no doubt Harden is extremely valued by the organization, that he helped create this identity, that he’s committed to the culture and that he wants to stay. So as Presti said, you have to work hard and make it happen. Which I think they will, eventually.

“He’s a very important player for our team and we need him for our team,” Ibaka said of Harden. “I think would be better if Sam told you because that’s not something I can control.”

But this was Ibaka’s day and though the cloud of Harden hovered over every bit of it, don’t lose sight that the Thunder just locked up the league’s premier shot blocker and a rapidly evolving and developing 23-year-old power forward for the next five years. Both Presti and Scott Brooks recounted Ibaka’s first NBA action, a couple minutes right before halftime against the Pistons his rookie year, and looking back, the development and maturation in his game is almost staggering. He’s gone from a physical specimen that was completely lost on the court to a skilled and smooth power forward.

Presti recalled one of his first meetings with Ibaka, a breakfast in a hotel following the 2008 draft where Oklahoma City selected him 24th overall. “At the time, he didn’t speak great English,” Presti said. “But in my experience with him, he spoke to me through his eyes. He had unbelievable determination. You could tell this was a very focused individual.”

Ibaka doesn’t seem to do anything slowly. He learned Spanish in a year and has picked up English over the last few. So it’s really no surprise that he’s developed as rapidly as he has on the floor. When he puts his mind to something, he gets it done. Presti and Brooks spoke a lot about Ibaka’s fierce competitive nature, something that’s obvious on the floor with him inhaling the ball after free throws, biting it after bad fouls or trying to rip Mike Dunleavy’s arm off and beat him with it. Ibaka plays with immense passion and emotion, something that is contagious.

“This is not only an athletic player that shoots the ball well but this is a player that has supreme competitiveness,” Presti said. “This is a player that has an internal disciple as a work ethic. That’s a quality we look for in all our players and he embodies them.”

Sure, Ibaka has room to improve. But again, that’s the beauty of it. He has room to improve. He’s not a finished product. The canvas isn’t blank, but there’s still a good amount of white space. What happens in the near future with Harden and the Thunder is naturally a concern and a valid focus. But don’t forget the Thunder signed Serge Ibaka. Even it’s a month after the fact.