EL SEGUNDO — When various Los Angeles Lakers beat reporters spotted center Ivica Zubac speaking with Mitch Kupchak during the team’s practice the day after he was assigned to the team’s D-League affiliate, there were a few natural questions.
Were the two talking about Kupchak’s goals for Zubac during his time with the the Los Angeles D-Fenders? Could they be discussing longer-term improvements the rookie taken 32nd-overall in the 2016 NBA Draft would need to make to his game?
“We didn’t talk about basketball,” said Zubac after his D-League debut in the D-Fenders’ 133-120 loss to the Rio Grande Valley Vipers. “We were talking about good restaurants in L.A.”
Discussing restaurants was fitting when considering how many expected the Lakers’ promising young center to eat in the D-League, and Zubac’s 13 points on a very nice six-of-nine from the field to go with two blocks were solid. Less so were the just three rebounds he collected before picking up his sixth foul, demonstrating Zubac still has a ways to go before he reaches his full potential.
“He listens and he tries to do the right thing, which is half the battle,” said D-Fenders point guard Josh Magette. “I played with him a couple times this summer, but that was my first time playing with him for an extended amount and I was really impressed.”
D-Fenders head coach Coby Karl was similarly impressed with what he saw from the 19-year old, while also being honest about where he needs to grow.
“He was really good. Obviously very efficient. I think he’ll need to pick up a couple more rebounds, especially on a team like we have where he’s one of the biggest guys on the floor,” Karl said. “Defensively he was pretty good. Communicating with guys and protecting the rim, and then offensively he was efficient. He finished well, he made some good post moves.”
Zubac had the full support of the Lakers while he did so. Zubac ended his pregame warm-ups by smiling and waving to Kupchak in his office above the D-Fenders’ court in the Lakers’ practice facility. The Lakers general manager later sat courtside for the first quarter of Zubac’s D-Fenders debut before heading back to his office.
Kupchak was just one member of a sizable Lakers support contingent. Lakers head coach Luke Walton brought his family to sit courtside. D’Angelo Russell and Larry Nance, Jr. also sidled up courtside, as did video coordinator Will Scott. For a second-round pick playing his first game following what could have felt like a demotion, the support was appreciated.
Lakers fans showed out too, with several screaming “Zuuuuu” intermittently throughout the night to encourage Zubac. More vocal than those fans was Russell himself.
"Feed the post gold, let's feed the post. Gotta get big fella' a touch, gold!" Russell yelled after Zubac missed his first two shots upon returning to the game in the second quarter. Not long afterward, Zubac committed a turnover when he stepped over the line on an inbounds play.
"It's okay Zu, play tough!" Russell encouraged, and when Zubac returned to the game in the second half he did. The rookie backed down Chinanu Onuaku in the post right out of the gates in the first half, scoring with feathery touch on a hook shot, and Russell made sure his approval was heard.
"There it is, there it is!” Russell praised, “That's a baby [hook]!”
The sequence kicked off Zubac’s most effective stretch of the game. D-Fenders big man Justin Harper found him on the break for a dunk, and a few minutes later forward David Nwaba rewarded him for running the floor.
The D-Fenders want to play fast, and the team currently averages 108.27 possessions per game, the seventh fastest pace in the D-League. That pace would lead the entire NBA, but despite his size, the 7’1 240 pound Zubac claimed he has no problem getting out and running.
“I felt great, I wasn’t tired for even one minute,” Zubac said.
The rookie seven-footer followed up those two scores with his second block of the game, but then picked up his fourth foul and went back to the bench. After a brief end of third quarter cameo, Zubac started the fourth quarter. He dropped in one more hook shot, but also picked up two more fouls (including one offensive one), which ended his first night in the D-League.
Zubac credited Karl for making the transition to the D-Fenders easy by using similar plays and terminology to what Walton does with the Lakers. The major adjustment he says he has to make is to the frequency of D-League whistles.
“It’s the same pace as the NBA, but less physical,” Zubac said. “I guess the last few months I’m used to playing physical with those guys and this is obviously not NBA, so I’ve got to be less physical.”
Still, Zubac’s play offered plenty of reasons for optimism. He showed off his array of offensive moves and shot a team-high 66.7 percent from the field against a solid D-League frontcourt of Onuaku and Joshua Smith. The performance left Zubac optimistic about his his next game with the D-Fenders.
“I couldn’t do much because I was in foul trouble,” Zubac said. “I was doing my best and next game is going to be better.”