EL SEGUNDO — Los Angeles Lakers center Ivica Zubac had a busy week leading up to the D-Fenders 119-96 blowout victory over the Austin Spurs Saturday night, working double duty while going back-and-forth between the Lakers and D-Fenders.
Zubac was recalled by the Lakers on Monday for the matchup with the Utah Jazz, then traveled with the team to Houston for the game against the Rockets on Wednesday night. When the Lakers returned from the one game road trip they re-assigned Zubac to the D-Fenders for Thursday night’s meeting with the Reno Bighorns. Once again, Zubac was recalled by the Lakers on Friday for their game with the Phoenix Suns at Staples Center, and one day later he was re-assigned to the D-Fenders for Saturday night’s win over Austin.
“It’s a little bit exhausting, because sometimes I have two-a-days and a game on the same day, so sometimes it can be exhausting,” Zubac told Silver Screen and Roll after Saturday night’s victory. “But I feel good. I’m young, I want to learn, I want to work hard every day, I want to play as much games as I can. So whatever they got for me I’m happy to do it.”
Zubac backed up his words with action, helping the D-Fenders get a win while stuffing the stat sheet with 18 points and 16 rebounds for his third double-double with the D-Fenders.
While going back-and-forth between the Lakers and D-Fenders may be a difficult and tiring challenge, D-Fenders Head Coach Coby Karl isn’t allowing it to be an excuse for Zubac.
“It’s tough, I know it is. But he’s getting paid a lot of money to do it, so I don’t think anyone is really worried about that,” Karl told Silver Screen and Roll. “At the end of the day this is his job and it’s something he loves to do and it will benefit him in the future, and I think he understands that better than anyone.”
Zubac does seem to understand that spending time with both teams is going to help him in the long run. In the past three games with the Lakers, Zubac only saw the court against the Rockets, where he got five minutes of playing time late in the game.
“You can learn better when you watch those players live from the court than you can learn from watching the tape, so it definitely helps,” Zubac said. “I’m sitting always next to Metta (World Peace) or José (Calderón) or Marcelo (Huertas), so every time we do something wrong or good they are telling me or they’re helping with some things. If I don’t get any minutes, still I’m going to learn something.”
It’s good news that as a 19-year-old Zubac realizes he still has a lot to learn, and that there are veterans on the Lakers roster that can help him develop and understand the game better. He has shown time and time again that he has an array of offensive talent but is very raw.
The offensive talent was on display again Saturday night against Austin. Zubac’s 18 points came from a variety of different offensive moves, including using his footwork and size in the low-post.
Of Zubac’s 16 rebounds, seven of them came on the offensive end. In past games Zubac had been guilty of not being engaged enough and ball watching, however, Saturday night Zubac was much more active rolling to the front of the rim and battling for an offensive or defensive rebound when a shot was put up.
Zubac’s most impressive play of the night came when the D-Fenders pushed the ball up the court after a defensive rebound. Zubac outran the defense rim-to-rim, enabling him to seal his defender underneath the basket with great positioning, leading to an easy dunk on the entry pass from point guard Josh Magette.
No one denies that Zubac possess the offensive tools that can eventually translate to the NBA, but he still has to keep improving his game, especially when it comes to the defensive side of the court.
“I think he still needs to get a lot better, he’s young, he’s still getting familiar with it. Defensively is his only issue, I don’t think anyone is ever going to question his offensive skill,” Karl said. “But defensively it’s just the consistency. [He has to] be ready to move and guard little guards that are quick and crafty, and being able to make multiple efforts.”
Ayres ready to help wherever he can
When the D-Fenders acquired Jeff Ayres, the move seemed a bit curious. Yes, Ayres was a D-League All-Star a season ago, and yes, Los Angeles did give up assets for him at last season’s trade deadline.
Still, with a crowded frontcourt featuring Justin Harper, Travis Wear, and frequent guest star Ivica Zubac, there was at least questions over where Ayres would fit in. For him, the answer is anywhere he’s needed.
"I'm trying to show whatever they need, man. Set screens, roll hard, communicate on defense. I'll be a leader in the huddle on the team, just anything,” Ayres said. "I know in the NBA I'm not going to be shooting a lot of jumpers and threes, it's going to be a lot of screen-and-roll."
Ayres’ raw numbers of 13 points and five rebounds in his first four games with the team certainly don’t pop off the page, but he is only playing 16.5 minutes per game while he plays behind Zubac during the latter’s assignments.
“When I come out he replaces me, so it’s going to be a hard time for opposing big players,” said Zubac.
The reason benches are due for a hard night is that in his limited minutes, Ayres is shooting an absurd (and team-best) 83.3 percent from the field, and his previously paltry looking averages translate out to 28.4 points and 10.9 rebounds per 36 minutes.
Ayres also hasn’t been the stereotypical shy new guy. The veteran forward is loud, from his defensive communication to trash talking opposing players.
"I've always been really vocal, it just depends on what I've been saying,” Ayres laughs. “Rookie year what I was vocal about is probably a little different than what I'm vocal about now, but I've always been a loudmouth kind of player, I'm not going to be out there and be quiet. I play hard, I wear my emotions on my sleeve so I'm just always intense and fired up and it comes out like that."
His teammates appreciate it.
“He’s a great communicator and has been around for a long time so he’s used to the game,” said D-Fenders rookie David Nwaba. “He has a lot of confidence playing and a lot of experience. I think that helps us a lot.”
There is only one area Ayres has really struggled so far, and after going a perfect seven-for-seven from the field against the Reno Bighorns and committed five fouls, he didn’t want to hear it when asked by one reporter if he had ever had a game where shot 100 percent from the field.
"I almost got 100 percent fouls,” Ayres laughed. "I probably got to stop fouling so damn much.”
Fouling aside, Ayres’ production is there, it’s just hidden, and it’s giving the D-Fenders enviable frontcourt depth. According to Ayres, his teammates have made things easy on him.
"Guys like Josh [Magette] get me in a position to where all I've got to do is dunk it,” Ayres said. “I don't have to work very hard for my points, just go set good screens for him and if I'm open he'll give it to me and all I've got to do is slam it.
“I love dunking the ball, so any time time I get a chance to do it I'm going to do it, and it's fun,” Ayres continued. “As long as everything [in my body] holds up, I'll be as high as I can, slamming it as hard as I can."
The D-Fenders are just glad he’ll be doing so with them for more than two games, although if Zubac gets recalled to the Lakers for an extended period, the D-League’s best insurance policy may slam the ball enough to get another call-up as well.
Nwaba moves into the starting lineup
In his first season as a professional, David Nwaba has made his presence known with the D-Fenders. Through 12 games with Los Angeles, Nwaba is averaging 9.3 points per game and 6.4 rebounds. Although Nwaba doesn’t boast an eye-popping stat line, he certainly stands out on the court with his energy and his knack for the ball, which prompted head coach Coby Karl to insert him into the starting lineup for two straight games. Since being moved to the starting lineup, Nwaba has averaged 14 points and seven rebounds.
“Our toughness has definitely gone up on defense and rebounding,” D-Fenders forward Justin Harper told Silver Screen and Roll on what Nwaba has brought to the starting lineup. “He’s unreal, both sides of the ball he gives you everything. Defensively he’s our defensive stopper, he’s really strong and plays he hard as hell.”
Nwaba plays with the same energy in every game and on every possession. He is constantly crashing the glass to pull down a rebound and offensively looking for a putback dunk.
Nwaba’s athleticism and ability to finish around the rim is second to none, clearly possessing NBA level athleticism, leading to him having a 67.1 shooting percentage which ranks him in the top 10 in the D-League. One of the reasons Nwaba has such a high field goal percentage is due in part because he rarely takes outside jump shots.
Of his 79 field goals attempted, 72 of them have come from less than five feet from the basket. In 12 games, Nwaba has taken just three jumpers from behind the three point line while not having made one.
“Some of the plays he makes are unbelievable and are NBA level plays. Obviously he needs to get his confidence shooting,” Karl said of Nwaba. “I don’t think it’s something he needs to work on, because he’s already a really good shooter. He’s capable of making 10 three’s in practice, so it’s just that confidence.”
While Nwaba may not have the confidence in his three-point shot, his teammates certainly have the utmost trust in his game. Nwaba may not always fill the stat sheet but he is a key role player that every team needs; a guy that is going to work hard and is willing to do anything the team needs on both sides of the court on any given night.
"David is a great player and complements us perfectly. He plays harder than anybody I know. You wouldn't guess he's a tryout guy, he's proven himself on many occasions, practice, games, and he has the heart of a warrior, man. I love that kid, I love playing with him,” said D-Fenders guard Vander Blue.
“He makes me better every day, him guarding me and us battling. I figure if I can score on him, I should be able to do that against anybody. He's probably the best defender in the league, and kudos to him. He does all the little things, he cuts, he's the best cutter, best defender, same energy every day. Same facial expression, he never comes out here and says nothing. He just does his job, and we really appreciate it."