EL SEGUNDO- As the Los Angeles D-Fenders were in the midst of a double overtime battle with the Northern Arizona Suns after blowing a 31-point lead in the second half, a Suns assistant coach yelled from the bench ‘bring Zubac back in the game.’
The Suns coaching staff got exactly what they wanted, but it didn’t work out how they hoped. Lakers center Ivica Zubac entered the game late in the first overtime after forward Justin Harper had fouled out and started the second overtime period. He contributed a critical bucket, but what felt better was silencing another doubter.
“I saw on Twitter that somebody tweeted that their assistant coach said ‘get Zubac back in the game,’ so it feels good,” Zubac told Silver Screen and Roll of his late basket. “I hate when somebody says I’m too slow, I’m too big, I can’t play at the end of games.”
The second overtime was redemption for Zubac, whose critical turnover on an inbound pass under the D-Fenders basket late in the first overtime led to the Suns tying the game at 135 with just four seconds left in the period, sending the game to a second overtime.
However, with the game on the line, the 2016 second-round draft pick had a substantial impact on the D-Fenders’ staving off the Suns in a thrilling 142-135 double overtime victory.
The Lakers center tallied four rebounds and two points in the final three minutes of the game, including a rebound and putback on his own missed shot over two Suns defenders that give Los Angeles a two-point lead with just one minute left in the contest.
“I want to be a go-to guy in the last second. So it felt great to get that basket and it definitely helped the team,” Zubac said. “A lot of people are saying a lot of bad things, and I'm just trying to prove them wrong.”
Zubac scored 21 points on 8-14 shooting while pulling down 12 rebounds in 35 minutes in his second game for the D-Fenders. The effort was a vast improvement on his first game with the team, in which a he managed just 13 points and three rebounds in 23 foul-plagued minutes.
“[Tonight] definitely feels better than last game and each day is going to get better,” Zubac said.
It comes as no surprise that Zubac showed major progress in his second game with the team, considering he finally got to practice with the D-Fenders before Wednesday nights match-up with the Suns.
“Basketball is all about relationships and building trust and chemistry with each other,” said D-Fenders leading scorer Vander Blue after Wednesday nights victory. “We’re adjusting to him just as much as he’s adjusting to us, so the more we’re together, the better it’s going to work out.”
It was obvious throughout the game how little Zubac has worked with the rest of the team. In a majority of set plays and out-of-bounds plays, the D-Fenders players were telling Zubac where he needed to lineup and where to go after the ball had began to move.
But from the way Blue yelled “Zuuuuuu” as he walked out of the building to how often his teammates were in his ear throughout the game, it’s clear the D-Fenders are building chemistry with the affable 19-year old. Even without fully developing a feel for his teammates, Zubac is talented enough to effect the game in a variety of ways.
“Zu is an unbelievable talent, he’s got an unguardable hook shot and big presence down there and I think he’s going to help us down the road,” Blue said.
Zubac did it all on the floor for the D-Fenders. The seven-footer scored out of the post, grabbed rebounds, affected shots, and even asked his own post-game questions.
“Did you see three-pointer?” Zubac asked following the game, before answering with a smile. “That’s my first professional three-pointer in my career. It feels good.”
In addition to confidently draining threes and promising more, Zubac has has worn the iconic number 33 jersey for the D-Fenders, otherwise known as Lakers’ legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s old number.
“Before the first game, I was thinking about what number I’m going to wear,” Zubac said. “I saw 33 and thought ‘this is better than 40.’ It’s pretty cool to wear that number, and it’s impossible to wear it for the Lakers.”
Trying to perfect his skyhook shot in a purple and gold #33 in the Lakers’ building naturally raises questions over whether or not Zubac wants to be the D-Fenders' Kareem, but he has set his sights considerably higher.
“That’s not my goal, it’s my goal the be the Lakers’ Kareem,” Zubac said. “But first I’ve got to start here and do a good job here, and then I can try to do something in a Laker game.”
All stats per dleague.nba.com. You can follow this author on Twitter at @BryantFreese