EL SEGUNDO — When Ivica Zubac woke up on Saturday morning, the first thing he thought of wasn’t making history. As just the 10th player ever to play in both a D-League and NBA game in the same day he would do just that, but Zubac’s mind stretched back to his first game with a major pro team on loan, which he played after participating in a game earlier that day with his lower division team.
After repeating the feat by playing just under three minutes in the Los Angeles Lakers’ Saturday morning loss to the LA Clippers and just over 32 in the Los Angeles D-Fenders’ overtime win over the Canton Charge, Zubac was tired but unbeaten. The confident 19-year-old second-round pick is willing to put in overtime to reach his lofty goals during a season that he admits has been harder than he expected.
"When I got drafted I thought 'everything is going to be easy now. I'm going to play a lot, I'm going to do this, I'm going to do that,’” Zubac told Silver Screen and Roll. “But everything is different. It's so tough, practicing every day, it's really hard."
Sometimes Zubac practices more than once a day, regularly taking part in a D-Fenders practice after a Lakers session concludes. Still, not much compares to either preparing for or playing in a basketball game for an entire day.
"This is harder,” Zubac said. “Practices sometimes on a game day can be light, so this is definitely harder."
Zubac’s long day started at 7:30 a.m., when he woke up and prepared to leave his apartment for STAPLES Center. As a rookie, Zubac has to be on the court working out three hours before a game (as opposed to the later pregame starts veterans receive).
After driving over to Staples Center, he grabbed breakfast before shooting around with assistant coaches at 9:30. Zubac then got in a quick pregame weightlifting session. The prep process is typical for Zubac, and it didn’t result in extra playing time, as he only was on the floor for a couple of minutes of garbage time.
Despite those meager minutes, Zubac was happy he got to show off the progress he’s making on his skyhook in his short stint, even if he didn’t necessarily plan to.
"When I get the ball I don't have any idea what I'm going to do. I just read the defense and what they do. If they stop me middle, I go baseline,” Zubac said. “They can't guard me."
The Clippers’ bench players may not have been able to stop Zubac, but Los Angeles traffic can stop anyone. As they tend to do in L.A., cars ground to a halt as Zubac was making his way home to try and sneak in a break before his second game.
Zubac was able to make it home and scarf down some lunch before taking what he estimated was a 15-20 minute nap and then heading out again.
D-Fenders head coach Coby Karl is one of the nine other players to ever play in a D-League and NBA game in a single day, and while he and Zubac didn’t have a chance to chat about it before the game, Karl acknowledged there are some benefits to the process.
“I had a lot of fun that day,” Karl told Silver Screen and Roll. “I think in a situation like this you just take it one step at a time. The pregame preparation probably isn't as important because you've already gone through one of the routines in the morning. Just rest up, get your mind right and be ready to play basketball.”
Zubac certainly came prepared. The seven-footer showed off the diverse array of post moves that make him appear so much more promising than a typical second-round pick, flipping in hook shots with either hand and finishing with 20 points on 10 shots to go with 10 rebounds and a block.
He also attempted to reciprocate all of the trash talk thrown his way by Charge players trying to get under his skin, something that isn’t always easy given the language barrier.
"I don't take it personally when D-League players trash talk because they are in the D-League for a reason,” Zubac said. “It's just hard to trash talk because you have to think of something good really quick, and I can do that in Croatian, but when I've got to translate that it can be hard. A few more years and nobody is going to stop me talking on the court.”
On Saturday night, that included on the defensive end, where Zubac became noticeably more engaged after a few early lapses, yelling out “ice!” over and over to communicate pick-and-roll coverages to his teammates from the second quarter on.
It wasn’t enough to keep him on the floor. The rookie center sat for the last few minutes of regulation and overtime as the D-Fenders went small to close the game. Not closing out games frustrates Zubac, but he also knows he has a lot of room for improvement.
“The best players in the league are really good at doing almost everything,” Zubac said. “I can do a lot on the offensive end, but I got to do everything better. And on defense, I got to improve a lot of things, especially my pick-and-roll defense."
Even if it didn’t result in the close-out minutes Zubac craves, Karl thinks he’s on the right track.
“He's improving defensively, and playing harder on the defensive end,” Karl said. “It's a different style of basketball here in the D-League and in America compared to Europe, so it's just something he's changing and getting used to. He's doing a good job of it already and I see him continuing that.”
No one knows quite how far Zubac can continue improving, and he’s certainly not aiming low.
"I want to get to the top, to be one of the best players in the league. That's what keeps me going every day,” Zubac said.
With Lakers head coach Luke Walton lamenting his team’s inability to foul Clippers big man DeAndre Jordan and force him to score from the free-throw line on Saturday afternoon, it’s not implausible a tactical adjustment could lead to them doing so against Andre Drummond of the Detroit Pistons on Sunday.
If that leads to foul trouble for the Lakers’ frontcourt, Zubac could be pressed into action for the third time in less than 48 hours, but he wasn’t thinking about that as he wrapped up a long day.
As the Lakers’ rookie shuffled out of the team’s practice facility nearly 14 hours after his day began, he sounded a just like a typical teenager upon his realization he could finally sleep in.
“I don’t have to be back at Staples until 3:30,” Zubac said. “I’m going to sleep ‘til noon!”