LAS VEGAS- From the second the ping pong balls revealed that the Lakers would receive the second-overall selection in the 2016 NBA Draft , the team's second round pick was (understandably) seen as an afterthought. After the Lakers first game of Las Vegas Summer League, D'Angelo Russell made it clear he doesn't think that should be the case.
"Brandon Ingram and Big Z, man. Don't leave that guy out," Russell said when he was only asked for his thoughts on the former. "They both looked really good. I was very impressed, they showed me a lot. The big fella [pauses, almost in awe] he's really good, and Brandon complements it."
Hearing that a team's second-overall pick "complements" their 32nd-overall selection might be one of the more unexpected sound bites anyone can hear at a summer league game, but Ivica Zubac has proven plenty worthy of the praise. The seven-footer's high level of play has his teammates wanting to ensure everyone remembers his name, so much so that Larry Nance, Jr. initially played dumb about a question when one reporter became the latest of many who’ve mispronounced it.
"I'm sorry? Oh Zoo-bots. Like a 'T-S'," corrected Nance, Jr. phoenetically. "I'm a huge fan, I really am. He's a big body down there, knows how to play physical. Rim protection. I love that. Me and him were kind of clogging the paint there for a little bit, and that's how we got our lead, with those defensive stops. That's a guy that I love playing alongside.”
The reasons why that’s true are easy to spot. Zubac’s rim protection has been one of the most notable aspects of the 2-0 Lakers’ summer league.
Most expected D’Angelo Russell to dominate (two 20-point games and one ice-in-his-veins game winner, check). Larry Nance, Jr. was expected to use his endless activity to end up all over the highlight reels (check).
However, few expected Zubac to build such an effective wall around the basket so quickly:
Ivica Zubac with two blocks on one possession.https://t.co/0nRTvfoG9Q— Los Angeles Lakers (@Lakers) July 9, 2016
Zubac is averaging two blocks per game through as many games in Las Vegas, and it’s left more than just the raucous, Lakers-leaning crowds impressed with him.
"Maaaaaan, the big fella! I was impressed with the big fella. There were times I was like 'man, I can't take this guy off the floor,” exclaimed the Lakers excitable summer league head coach, Jesse Mermuys after the Lakers’ win over the New Orleans Pelicans. “His rim protection was really impressive.”
More than just rim protection, Zubac has used his endless arms to force his opponents to fling their layup attempts all over the place in hopes of clearing his reach. The seven-footer’s activity is something he’s focused on maintaining against the higher caliber competition.
“It's so much faster than in Europe and there are better athletes,” said Zubac after his first taste of NBA action. “Everything is quicker, so you have to have quick reactions, but I can handle it. “
Unfortunately for Zubac, the combination of higher-caliber athletes and his frequent shot challenges means he’s going to occasionally not be able to handle it, and end up as the victim on another player’s poster, as he did in the Lakers next game against the Philadelphia 76ers:
“We don't have that in Europe,” said Zubac of getting dunked on by Jerami Grant. “I thought he was going to make pump fake, so I didn't jump, and he jumped on me.”
The Lakers and Zubac will take that occasional trade-off if Zubac continues to affect more shots than he lets through, but the internet is a cruel mistress, and immediately made some changes to his Wikipedia page in the wake of the rookie’s baptism:
“I did [die] a little bit,” Zubac said when informed of his death, but as should be expected given the Lakers’ newfound camaraderie, his teammates were ready to avenge him.
“I told him when he got dunked on 'I'll get him back for you,'“ recalled Nance, Jr. “Hey, that's my center, I got his back.”
Get the Sixers back, Nance, Jr. did, but he also thought the posterization offered a teachable moment for his young frontcourt partner, and says Zubac will need to learn to defend himself if he’s going to reach his ceiling as an NBA player.
“Yeah he got dunked on, everybody does,” said Nance, Jr. “We told him next time somebody goes up on you like that, make your presence felt. Nothing dirty, but make sure he knows you're there.”
Zubac may be wounded, but reports of his demise were premature. The Lakers’ favorite friendly giant is ready to bounce back, and if his strong summer league play continues, soon enough fans, analysts, and summer league public address announcers will be pronouncing his name correctly.
Even when he gets dunked on.
All quotes obtained firsthand. You can follow this author on Twitter at @hmfaigen.