EL SEGUNDO- If the Los Angeles D-Fenders winning their first two games after Los Angeles Lakers’ center Ivica Zubac’s second assignment to the team didn’t make it clear, the roster is adjusting to the rookie’s presence.
Zubac dropped 14 points to go with seven rebounds, three assists, and (perhaps most importanly) just one foul in 26 minutes of playing time during the D-Fenders’ Saturday night 132-120 road win over the Rio Grande Valley Vipers.
“I got to know my teammates better, our playing style, and it definitely feels better,” Zubac told Silver Screen and Roll last Wednesday after his first game back with the D-Fenders. “Each day is going to be better.”
Zubac has certainly been better about not fouling, decreasing how many times he was whistled in each of his games with the D-Fenders so far. As for fitting in to their offense, it’s been a work in progress, but the team says the adjustment process is going well.
“The nice thing is a lot of the terminology is the same with Luke and the guys up there, so that made the transition a little easier,” said D-Fenders point guard Josh Magette after Zubac’s first game with the team. “I think just getting used to the speed of the D-League is an adjustment because the D-League is even faster than what NBA games are.”
D-Fenders’ leading scorer Vander Blue believes Zubac is fitting in the more he plays with the team.
“The first time we played with him, he didn’t practice with us so it was kind of hard to adjust to him,” Blue said. “We’re adjusting to him just as much as he’s adjusting to us, so the more and more that we’re together, it’s gonna work out.”
There have been flashes of things working out, but there is still a ways to go. Zubac has phenomenal tools, but he still needs seasoning. Over the three games he’s played for the Lakers’ D-League affiliate, the team is scoring 107.7 points per 100 possessions with Zubac on the floor. That sounds pretty good, but it’s actually the second-worst mark on the D-Fenders, while the team has scored 120 points per 100 possessions with him on the bench.
The D-Fenders are also more like the -Fenders with Zubac on the floor, giving up a team worse 120.4 points per 100 possessions during his minutes as compared to 101.9 when he sits, the second-staunchest mark on the team. Some of this is wonkiness due to small-sample size, but Zubac is also the only D-Fender with a negative net rating (the D-Fenders are outscored by 12.7 per 100 possessions in his minutes so far).
That all may sounds gloomy, but there is hope. Zubac is just 19, and he’s done a lot of good things for the D-Fenders as well during his stints. He’ll have to clean a few things up, but that’s what this D-League stint is for. The rest of the team had a training camp together while Zubac is trying to adjust on the fly, and Blue is hopeful the center he he’ll get better the more time he spends with them.
“Basketball is all about relationships and building trust and chemistry with each other,” Blue said. “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.”
Zubac echoed Blue’s optimism.
“[Being with the D-Fenders is] going to help me, it’s going to help the team, and you can expect better performance from me.”
Blue moving up in all-time scoring
After scoring 21 points on Saturday night, Vander Blue stands just eight points shy of passing Justin Dentmon for 12th all-time in scoring. Most would assume a player would be keeping track of such milestones, but Blue says that’s not his style.
"No, not really man. I just come out here and try to play, and do whatever I can to help my team, and try to reach my goal and reach the team's goals, and that's getting back to the NBA and helping the D-Fenders be the best that we can be,” Blue told Silver Screen and Roll on Wednesday. “But now that you told me that I'm thankful for that, being in a position to steadily move up the rankings, there are some good guys on there that can put the ball in the hole. Some guys older than me and probably played more than me, but I'm just doing what I do, just trying to come out here and have fun and just win."
The D-Fenders have been doing plenty of winning to start the season, moving to 5-1 on Saturday night. If they want to continue doing so, they’ll need Blue to continue to score at the level that’s made him one of the best bucket-getters in the history of the D-League.
Magette gets assist milestone:
Blue isn’t the only D-Fenders guard moving up in the record books. Point guard Josh Magette continued to make his case as arguably the best floor general in D-Fenders history on Saturday night. Magette dished 11 assists against the Valley Vipers, which moved him into 16th all-time in D-League history. Fittingly, he credited his teammates with assisting in accomplishing the mark.
“It means a lot,” Magette said of his achievement. “I know there have been so many good point guards that have come through the D-League and it's a testament to how good the guys I've gotten to play with have been.”
Magette is currently leading the D-League in assists for the second consecutive season after making it to the final roster cut of the Atlanta Hawks training camp. As long as the D-Fenders continue to play at the second-quickest pace in the D-League, Magette’s rein as the top setup man in the NBADL looks set to continue.