EL SEGUNDO — The Los Angeles D-Fenders fell to the Rio Grande Valley Vipers in a scoring slug fest 140-125 Saturday night. Los Angeles got off to a hot start behind Ivica Zubac’s nine first quarter points on a perfect three-of-three from the field, including a three-point bucket for the D-Fenders first points of the game. Together, the D-Fenders shot 63.6 percent in the opening quarter. However, the hot shooting start was unsustainable as they finished the game shooting 45.1 percent.
But offense wasn’t the problem for Los Angeles Saturday night, with three players scoring over 20 points and the team scoring 125 total. The D-Fenders were unable to lock down on the defensive side of the court.
There wasn’t much “D” in D-Fenders, as the defense gave up 140 points while allowing Gary Payton II, the son of hall of famer Gary Payton, to have an unconscious night scoring the ball. Payton certainly impressed with his father in the building, putting up 51 points on the D-Fenders while shooting 20-for-29.
Even with the loss, the D-Fenders are off to the best start in the franchise young 10-year history at 7-3, with all three losses coming at the hands of the Vipers.
“I think it’s cool for the guys,” said D-Fenders Head Coach Coby Karl. “Even though we did have that good start, I think we left some stuff on the table, we had more opportunities. But they’ve played their ass off and got some wins that maybe we didn’t deserve to get, and it’s a credit to their character.”
The D-Fenders’ offense has been among the league leaders in most statistical categories throughout their first 10 games. Los Angeles leads the league in points per game with 124.6, assists at 25.8 per game and a field goal percentage of 49.3.
Los Angeles trails only the Northern Arizona Suns, who they beat Nov. 23 in El Segundo, in the Pacific Division through their first 10 games of the season. The team isn’t satisfied with the record start to the season, instead they are looking to improving their game.
“No, not really. It’s all about how you finish,” said D-Fenders guard Vander Blue when asked if the record means anything. “You can start off terrible and still finish strong. It’s not about record, it’s about getting better every single day.”
Blue has started off the 2016-2017 campaign right where he left off last season, leading the D-Fenders in the scoring column with 22.6 points per game. Although he has been the leader in scoring, Blue feels he needs to show more than that going forward.
“[I need to] be more of a leader and control the team a little bit more. Just come out assertive right away and let my presence be felt right away, just let everybody know what I’m here for,” Blue said.
Blue has helped lead the D-Fenders offense to be among the league leaders in most statistical categories throughout their first 10 games. While the offense has appeared to be the D-Fenders strength, forward Justin Harper believes they can improve to be a more formidable scoring force.
“I think we have to work on not going through any low periods on offense,” Harper said. “Just make sure we stay moving because when we’re moving we’re hard to guard on offense and in transition.
“When we keep the pace up we’re a hard team to guard.”
The D-Fenders added 6-foot-9 forward Jeff Ayres as a returning player on December 1. Ayres was a D-League All-Star last season in 25 games with the Idaho Stampede and two with the D-Fenders before the L.A. Clippers called him up.
Ayres is a solid addition to an already talented frontcourt of Los Angeles with Harper, David Foster, Roscoe Smith, Travis wear and Zubac. In two games with D-Fenders Ayres is averaging 10 points and 3.5 rebounds in 15.8 minutes per game.
Ayres does, however, add another talented player to an already crowded frontcourt rotations, an issue that Karl is still sorting out.
“I don’t know, you got any answers for me? Because I’ve wondered” Karl said with a laugh when asked how he plans to divvy up minutes. “I think it’ll be tough but it’s a great, great problem to have.”
Karl’s answer to the problem Saturday night against the Vipers was playing newly acquired Ayres 17 minutes. Ayres had a strong outing in his second game with D-Fenders, putting up 12 points on an efficient four-of-five shooting from the field.
Since Los Angeles acquired Ayres on December 1, center David Foster has not played in two straight games, and Roscoe Smith was inactive Saturday night to make room for Travis Wear who was coming back from a concussion.
Ayres may have been brought back with the thought of Zubac being called back up to the Lakers at some point in the future, which would certainly open more playing to for the remaining big men.
Zubac through six games
Zubac finished the game against the Vipers with 21 points and scored with ease when he got the ball, showing an array of weapons and great footwork and offensive skill when his teammates fed him down-low on the post. Zubac knocked down jump shots as well, and threw down a few emphatic dunks for good measure.
Zubac thought he could’ve done even more.
“If I get the ball I can score on everybody,” Zubac said after Saturday night’s loss. “But I didn’t get any post-ups. Sometimes my teammates don’t think I’m in a better position than them. A couple possession I was wide open, but sometimes it’s hard to make that decision in a game when you’re playing.”
While Zubac believes he should get more looks, he does appear to be finding his rhythm with the team after playing six games and spending considerably more time on assignment with the D-Fenders.
“The more time he spends with us in practice and more games, we get more familiar with him and he’s getting more familiar with us.” Blue said. “But it’s still a work in progress, he’s 19, it’s hard for any 19-year-old to come down on assignment, especially coming from another country and learning to play how we play over here.”
Zubac has been impressive with the D-Fenders, but he still is a “work in progress” as Blue says, which is exactly why the Lakers assigned the young big man to the D-Fenders for an extended period of time. There were moments in Saturday night’s loss to the Vipers in which Zubac could be seen ball watching too much on both sides of the ball, rather than getting involved in the offense or putting a body on an opponent on the defensive side of the court.
As a young player, Zubac needs to learn to play with maximum effort throughout an entire game instead of showing it in spurts. After a great start to the game with nine points in the first quarter, Zubac had just two points combined in the second and third.
In the fourth, however, Zubac reminded everyone why the Lakers and their fans are so enthused about his future. The big man dropped 10 points in the final period as the D-Fenders tried to eke out a victory, including a dunk resulting from a perfectly executed pick-and-roll with Justin Harper.
“Sometimes I’m not 100 percent in the game and I don’t go for a dunk but in the last quarter I was,” Zubac said. “I was a little bit mad at myself for having bad energy the whole game so I had to do something.”
All quotes obtained firsthand. You can follow this author on Twitter at @BryantFreese