2019-20 Breakout Player Series: Ivica Zubac
Photo by Reuters / Pixsell Ivica Zubac
Ivica Zubac who stands at 7’1” was drafted in the second round of the 2016 NBA draft by the Los Angeles Lakers. He spent three seasons there, playing in 114 games where he averaged 6.4 points, 3.9 rebounds and 0.7 blocks. He only started 23 games, but did establish himself as a steady rotation guy. The Lakers clearly didn’t see him as a future piece for their franchise and traded him to their crosstown rivals, LA Clippers.
The Clippers front office couldn’t believe their luck, after acquiring Zubac for next to nothing (practically a free trade). Doc Rivers’ only true center last season was Marcin Gortat, and Zubac was a definite upgrade. He played 26 games overall and started 25 of them. During those games, he posted 9.4 points, 7.7 rebounds and 0.9 blocks.
The regular season was a real success for Zu, however, the playoffs was a different story. The Golden State Warriors small-ball lineup was too much for him to deal with, and was relegated to the bench for the final three games, playing fewer than three minutes combined.
Zubac’s stock got damaged by that series and many questions were asked. Most prominently his ability to defend the ‘new style’ of center, as well as his mobility against small-ball teams. Luckily for him, the Clippers’ were high on his talents and understood where he needed to improve. They saw him as part of their long-term plans and offered him $28.5m over four years.
The franchise was so invested in Zu’s talent, during the off-season they sent their coaching team over to his native Croatia for workouts. They gave him goals to lose weight and improve his conditioning. The idea was that he would be stronger and lighter on his feet, allowing him to bang with the bigs, and better defend the interior. The hard work paid off, as Zubac came into the new season looking noticeably leaner and more defined.
So far this season Zu has come up big defensively, making himself a nuisance with his towering frame, posting two or more blocks on three occasions. According to Second Spectrum's player tracking data. Zubac has held players to 17-of-46 shooting (37%) inside 10 feet. He’s achieved these numbers averaging 16.1 minutes per game. Doc made reference to Zubac’s progression during an interview after the Hornets game.
“[Zubac] was great, we need him to be big. I tell him be large, be heavy, be all the things you are every night, and tonight I felt like he was a force,” preached Rivers.
“You think about the condition he came back in,” Rivers pointed out. “We asked him to get in shape, he did that. Everything we’ve asked him to do, he’s trying to do, and from a coach’s perspective, that’s all you can ask for.”
His offensive game is improving, already posting 9.6 points on 68.1% shooting. Kawhi Leonard and Zubac have built a budding relationship, where they’ve exploited teams with their pick-and-roll. Similar to how Montrezll Harrell and Lou Williams flex on the second unit.
Zu has everything in the tool box to improve his weaknesses and become one of the best centers in the NBA. He needs to be consistent with his interior defence, protecting the rim, boxing out and swatting the boards. For this to be achievable, Rivers needs to increase his playing time to 20+ minutes. The platform is there for him to succeed, and he is integral to the Clippers chances of success.
His numbers this season won’t show the full extent of his success. To fully understand Zubac’s impact, you will have to measure this through the reliable eye-test.