ANAHEIM — Los Angeles Lakers fans have bought-in on Ivica Zubac for the same reason people buy lottery tickets. Despite every synapse in their brains reminding them of the hundreds of second-round picks who amount to little more than footnotes on a team's cap sheet, the raucous screams of "Zuuuuuu" throughout the preseason serve as evidence their hearts have bought into this longshot at a big payout.
Hook, line, and sinker.
To be fair to Lakers fans, the front office's history later in the draft in recent years does offer reason to be optimistic Zubac has better odds to pan out than a scratcher from your local liquor store. To be fair to Zubac, he's also shown more than your average 32nd overall draft pick, and crowds from Anaheim to Las Vegas have let him know they’ve noticed.
"That's what's really great. The first game [in Las Vegas Summer League] I came up to Larry and I said 'I love playing for the Lakers because everybody was like ZUUUU,’” Zubac told Silver Screen and Roll.
“I didn't play any games and I had so many fans, and that's what's crazy. I love it every time when I get on the court. It feels great."
Fans aren't the only ones in love with the young big man. Zubac's teammates have embraced him like a new puppy, sometimes literally.
When made aware he was starting, Russell called Zubac across the room by yelling his last name repeatedly and slapping the bench before offering him words of encouragement that brought a smile to the young center's face.
“I just told him relax,” Russell said. “I knew he was nervous, before he walked out of the locker room you could just tell, but I was just trying to get him to relax a little bit.”
Anthony Brown and Larry Nance, Jr. teased Zubac for nearly the entirety of our one-on-one interview, with Nance, Jr. imitating Lakers PA announcer Lawrence Tanter's barritone introducing and ribbing him about games of FIFA.
“He told us on Twitter he was going to show us how Europeans play FIFA, so we were a little bit nervous until we played him, and then just 4-0s and 5-0s.” Nance Jr. told Silver Screen and Roll.
“And also, just for the record, please write this. I beat him 5-to-2 with the Galaxy while he was Real Madrid,” Nance Jr. continued. “I just really want that out there.”
“That’s a lie!” protests Zubac.
“I can confirm [he did],” adds Brown.
Zubac swears the two are just ganging up on him because they're Americans, but it's clear that the rookie has become a beloved presence in the locker room.
Until Thursday night, that was pretty much the only place Zubac had made an appearance so far during preseason, but with Timofey Mozgov being held out as a precaution after bruising his tailbone in the Lakers' Wednesday loss to the Warriors, Lakers head coach Luke Walton gave Zubac the nod as starter.
"He's been great for us," Walton said. "Because of the way it's worked out this preseason, between getting Mozgov comfortable with the system and the other players and trying to figure out who's going to be in the second unit, and also trying to evaluate Robinson and Yi, he's been the man that's been left out unfortunately. It hasn't been because of his performance, so with Mozgov out we just felt like it was right to get him an opportunity to get out there and play because of all the hard work he's given us."
Before the game, Zubac made his way around the court, going through a rigid pregame routine with assistant coach Mark Madsen, whom he credited as one of the coaches (along with Bill Bertka) for working with him most:
Zubac is hitting three hook shots from each spot around the restricted area with Madsen pic.twitter.com/rghDeYvazq— Harrison Faigen (@hmfaigen) October 21, 2016
This is an area of his game Zubac has gotten a shocking amount of hype for working on this season, and he got to show off his progress so far against the Suns, both the good:
And not so good:
Zubac also missed a jumper early in the game, and while he doesn't quite have that shot mastered yet in warm-ups or the game, he's mastered the English swear word he mutters upon misses.
Even though he isn't an expert in every area yet, he's getting to try, and he's grateful for the opportunity.
“I can show more what I've got, more individual stuff. In Europe you have coach tactics and that's all,” Zubac said. “Obviously you have to do it here, but when you've got the ball you can show what you have individually and in Europe if I did a skyhook I would be on the bench the whole game.
“And that's reality. European basketball is game of coaches and this is game of players.”
Despite this added freedom while he was on the floor, he didn’t spend much time there. Zubac only played 10 minutes in the game, and it's fair to assume that barring injury he won't get much more run than that during the regular season. At least in the NBA.
"When we don't see him in the regular rotation, we're all healthy, and we're home, I think it's great for players to be able to go down and get those 35 minutes a night type of games in the D-League to work on their skills." Walton said. "Especially for these young guys to continue to learn and play.
“They got a good staff there, we just hired Coby Karl, who's been with us all training camp, so he knows what we're running and he's been working with the players,” Walton continued. “So he'll be able to run an extension of what we would be doing."
When told of his coach’s plan, Zubac said he doesn’t have any problem with that.
“It's good to play for [the D-Fenders] because I can get minutes with them and I still need to improve.” Zubac said. “I think that's going to be great for me to play a lot of minutes somewhere because probably this year I'm not going to get a lot of minutes.”
Whether it’s in the NBA or the D-League, Zubac has two goals going into the season, and it sounds like he’s already failed to avoid the first one — not getting dunked on by Nance.
“He tried to dunk on me on the court but he's not going to get that,” Zubac confidently proclaimed.
“I cleared you, at Staples,” Nance Jr. corrected.
“That was warmup. I was catching the ball and he just came out of nowhere,” admitted Zubac. “I didn't even know he was going to jump, I didn't even expect it.”
Zubac’s second, and more practical, goal is to improve no matter where he’s playing.
“I want to make progress and I want to get some experience at the NBA level. That's most important, to show my coach and teammates that they can count on me. That I can help,” Zubac said.
“I just want to be a better player. That's the most important thing at the end of this year, is that I can say I'm a better player.”
All quotes obtained firsthand. You can follow this author on Twitter at @hmfaigen.