Editor’s Note: A two part note ahead of this one. First and foremost we’re happy to welcome Gary Kester to our writing staff. You’ve likely caught him in any number of our podcasts in the past, on Lakers Twitter, or over at Lakers Outsiders where he does some great work. He should be a fantastic addition to our community! Secondly, we’re on to No. 11 in our #LakersRank, where the team’s "Wookie" awaits.
#11. Ivica Zubac
Average rank: 11
After an extremely long, dreadful 2015-16 campaign finally came to a close for the Lakers, it was obviously time to upgrade the roster. Of the most critical upgrades necessary were the small forward and center positions, and heading into the 2016 NBA Draft, virtually everyone knew that one of those would be addressed by Los Angeles selecting Brandon Ingram with the second-overall pick. With the No. 32 overall pick, many expected the Lakers to take a big man, although they went with one that flew in under the radar.
Enter Ivica Zubac. The 19-year-old Croatian big man was a surprising pick, but one that garnered the Lakers plenty of praise from several international scouts who believed he very easily could have been selected much higher in this year’s draft. Although he was a bit of an unknown, Zubac became a fan favorite as soon as he stepped in front of a microphone, talking about his childhood that included being a die-hard Lakers fan. Having a last name that is basically its own nickname generator doesn’t hurt either.
As easy as it is for Lakers fans to like Zubac off the court, he delivered a pleasant surprise with his stellar play on it through the 2016 NBA Summer League. In the five games Los Angeles played in Las Vegas, Zubac logged 23.2 minutes per game, averaging 10.6 points on an astounding 64.7 percent shooting to go along with 7.2 rebounds and 2.6 blocks.
The big man provided a skill set that appeared far more advanced than his age might suggest. Offensively, he was patient down on the block when he looked to score, doing an adequate job of surveying the defense before going to work in the post. On multiple occasions, he even flashed his ability to step away from the basket and knock down a midrange jumper off the catch.
Zubac showed excellent touch with his jump hook after using his 7-foot-1, 265 pound frame to create separation. He also used that strength to help free up his guards with great contact on screens in pick-and-roll action, though his quickness in regards to rolling to the basket could use a little work.
On the other end of the floor, he teamed up with Larry Nance, Jr. to anchor the defense of the Lakers’ summer league squad, blocking, contesting and altering shots continuously in the paint. The last several years have seen the Lakers consistently become one of the league’s worst defensive teams, so having a young rim protector with a fair amount of upside is exciting.
There are plenty of reasons to believe that Zubac can become a solid rotational player for the Lakers for many years to come, perhaps more if he really develops his game. But just like any young player, there are aspects of his game that need refinement.
The downside of his massive frame is what seems to be poor lateral quickness. Often times in pick-and-roll defense he was forced to give ball-handlers a considerable cushion so he didn’t get beat off the dribble. This could be problematic with the amount of floor spacing that is utilized in today’s NBA with perimeter shooting threats and small-ball lineups, especially if he gets matched up against a big that can shoot from the outside.
Naturally, as a rookie it is difficult to predict how Zubac’s skill set will translate into actual NBA games right out of the gate. While he surprised many with his summer league impact, patience will likely be needed as he develops over the first few seasons of his career.
A key factor in that development may hinge on how much playing time he receives during his first years in the league. For this upcoming season, the Lakers have a surplus of players that play either power forward or center. They invested in a lucrative four-year deal with Timofey Mozgov, re-signed Tarik Black and are reportedly bringing in Yi Jianlian from China, so there may not be many minutes to be had for Zubac in his rookie campaign. Granted, Mozgov does have a worrisome injury history and it’s unknown just how much Yi can contribute in his first year back in the NBA, but we also have to factor in certain lineups that may feature a small-ball five such as Nance or even Julius Randle.
Zubac displayed more than enough promise in his summer league play to have Lakers fans excited about his future in purple and gold, but with the current situation, there may not be enough minutes available for him to make a significant impact from the get-go. That, combined with his age and inexperience, keep him from being higher in the roster ranks for now. That is fine, though, as Los Angeles is rebuilding and should have its eyes on the future.
Only time will tell just how well Zubac will pan out, but if he keeps building off of the foundational skill set he has built already, the Lakers could have found yet another diamond in the rough.
All stats courtesy of NBA.com.