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Toronto Raptors

Serge Ibaka is invaluable to the Toronto Raptors and remains the most underappreciated player in the NBA

When Marc Gasol returns on Wednesday against the Oklahoma City Thunder, he'll take his place alongside Pascal Siakam and Kyle Lowry to once again form one of the most experienced and respected trios in the league. After missing 12 games over the course of nearly a month, Gasol will be a welcoming addition for a Raptors' team that's battled the injury bug all season.

The game is in Oklahoma City, but if it were in Toronto there's a good chance that Gasol would be greeted with thunderous applause from an endearing crowd happy to see Big Spain back in the lineup.

Starting alongside him in the frontcourt will be Serge Ibaka. Although the two haven't started many games together in their short time as teammates, there likely won't be much fanfare and it won't be a seminal moment. Just background noise in the middle of the January slog, a single entry into the play-by-play for game number 40 of the 82-game grind.

MORE: Will Gasol's return fuel a win in OKC?

It's beyond fitting that in the midst of the greatest stretch of his career, Ibaka will unglamorously take a backseat and go on about his business. And he'll do it in the same building where he spent seven-plus years of his career and once dropped a career high in his first game back, a game that even the biggest of fans probably don't remember.

Underappreciated.

If there's one word to describe Ibaka, it's that.

Did you know that he's rattled off eight straight double-doubles, the longest such streak of his career and the longest by any Raptor in over a decade?

Did you know that you have to go all the way back to Chris Bosh to find the last Toronto player to do that?

Did you know that during that span, Ibaka has averaged a tidy 19.1 points and 11.5 rebounds a game while shooting 54.6 percent from the floor?

Did you know that he's an incredible 12-for-25 from the 3-point line over that span, good for 48% which is the best on the team (min. 10 attempts)?

Did you know that his five 20-point, 10-rebound games since December 28 ranks tied for second-most in the NBA with reigning MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo and just one behind Luka Doncic?

20-10 Games Since Dec. 28
Luka Doncic 6
Serge Ibaka 5
Giannis Antetokounmpo 5
James Harden 4
Nikola Vucevic 4

Did you know that the only player scoring more, rebounding more AND shooting better over that span is Giannis Antetokounmpo?

Did you know that on the season he's holding opponents to 49.7 percent shooting at the rim, the exact same number as reigning two-time Defensive Player of the Year Rudy Gobert?

Maybe you did know all of that. Or maybe you didn't. Regardless, it's indisputable that Ibaka has produced at All-Star levels during this window of All-Star fan voting.

VOTE HERE FOR THE 2020 ALL-STAR GAME!

Of course, this whole "stepping up at the right time" is nothing new for Ibaka.

Remember Game 7 in the Eastern Conference Semifinals against the Philadelphia 76ers? Of course you do. It's the game with four bounces, when Kawhi Leonard stamped Toronto's ticket into the Conference Finals with an iconic shot that will stand the test of time as one of the most dramatic moments in NBA postseason history.

Likely to be forgotten, at least outside of Toronto and in the nether reaches of Raptors fan message boards? The play of Serge Ibaka.

In an ugly game with less than stellar shooting (the Raptors shot just 38% including 7-30 from beyond the 3-point line), Ibaka poured in 17 points on 6-of-10 shooting off the bench which nearly canceled out 76ers superstar starting centre Joel Embiid. He buried a double clutch 3 early in the fourth quarter with points at a premium and ended that game a whopping +22, far and away the best plus-minus on a team that survived with a razor thin final margin of only two points.

Underappreciated.

Did you know that this isn't the first time Ibaka has stepped up for the Raptors with a timely stretch of consistent production down a starter?

Prior to these most recent eight games, Ibaka's career-best double-double streak stood at seven games, which he did midway through last season. That coincided with an injury to then-starting centre Jonas Valanciunas and then-starting forward Kawhi Leonard. When that streak ended on February 7, it coincided with the celebrated trade for Gasol, a move that foreshadowed a "taking one for the team" transition to a reserve role.

Underappreciated.

When the decade came to a close and the calendar flipped from 2019 to 2020, there were plenty of retrospectives on the preceding 10 years.

Who was the player of the decade? Who was the team of the decade? What were the biggest moments? Who will rule the next decade?

Did you know that if you take every single player from the 2010s and rank them in order of total wins including the regular season and playoffs, that LeBron James comes out on top?

That one's pretty easy.

But did you know who finished runner-up on that list?

Serge Ibaka.

He may not be a defining player in the same mould of a LeBron or Kawhi, but Ibaka's sprawling fingerprints are all over some of the league's biggest moments. Toronto doesn't win the NBA title without Ibaka and nearly a decade before that, Oklahoma City probably doesn't trade James Harden to the Houston Rockets were it not for Ibaka who at the time stood tall as the reigning block champion and who along with Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, was one of three players to start every game for the 2011-12 Thunder squad that reached the NBA Finals and lost to LeBron James and the Miami Heat.

Ibaka was that important. So important that OKC ultimately decided to hold onto him over Harden in what will surely go down as one of the biggest "what ifs" in NBA history and one that still reverberates across the league landscape today.

In the grand scheme of things... underappreciated.

When Marc Gasol returns on Wednesday, it should be celebrated. For the first time in what feels like the entire season, the Raptors are finally getting healthy. And a full-strength Toronto squad has the potential to disrupt the entire Eastern Conference and introduce chaos with a healthy serving of championship NBA.

But when feasting your eyes upon the defending champs, take a moment to appreciate the man who deserves far more credit than he receives.

Serge Ibaka... take a bow.

The views expressed here do not represent those of the NBA or its clubs.

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