Ivica Zubac instantly became a fan favorite after being selected No. 32 overall by the Los Angeles Lakers in the 2016 NBA Draft. Listening to his draft day interview, it was impossible not to smile as he gushed over being picked by his favorite team growing up, even admitting that he hoped some teams would pass on him so that Los Angeles had the opportunity to snag him.
As quickly as Lakers fans fell in love with the 19-year-old big man off the court, his play as of late already has them gazing at his potential on it. While Zubac is essentially still just a big kid, he certainly hasn’t played like one recently. The vast majority of Zubac’s rookie season to this point has been spent in the NBA Developmental League with the soon-to-be South Bay Lakers. But in the past week or so, Zubac has not only found himself to be an important part of the rotation, but he is making a considerable impact coming off the bench.
In three of the past five games, Zubac has earned at least 26 minutes of playing time. The team’s last two games have saw him tally back-to-back double-doubles, averaging 14 points and 10 rebounds in 27 minutes of action. How has Zubac been able to be so effective this early on, given his age and adjustment to the NBA style of play? Let’s dive in.
There are a number of areas that Zubac is finding a way to make an impact in his rookie season. On a Lakers team that ranks dead last in the NBA in defensive efficiency, Zubac has been one of the few bright spots on that end. The Lakers opened up the checkbook back in July to bring in Timofey Mozgov to anchor the paint and protect the rim, but Zubac is already showing the ability to do just that. He leads the team in block percentage at 52.6 percent and in number of blocked shots per 100 possessions with 2.6, all while averaging just 4.2 fouls per 100 possessions. Tarik Black averages eight fouls in that category and Mozgov is currently at 5.5.
Zubac is avoiding fouls by displaying a great understanding of using verticality to defend shots inside. Mozgov has a reputation for doing the same, so perhaps that’s something he has taught the youngster.
Here are a few examples that show Zubac’s ability to send back shots or alter drives to the bucket.
Another area that Zubac has been solid on the defensive end is in pick-and-roll coverage. There is obviously still room to grow, but back in Summer League play, Zubac had to sag extremely far off the high screen because he simply didn’t have the foot speed to come up higher. There are still times that he needs to come up just a bit more, but the improvement this early is encouraging.
To finish a defensive possession with a stop, you have to secure a rebound, something the Lakers have struggled with at times. In the three games that he has logged at least 26 minutes, Zubac has a 13-rebound performance and a pair of 10-rebound nights. He has shown tremendous activity on the glass and flashed the ability to contest shots and recover to fight for the rebound. Of the shots that Zubac has blocked this season, 40 percent have turned into a defensive rebound (per nbawowy!).
When it comes to overall rebounding, Zubac does a nice job on the offensive glass as well. In the three aforementioned games, 11 of his 33 total rebounds were on the offensive end of the floor. To sum it up, he is helping end possessions on defense while creating more of them for the Lakers with his work on the offensive glass.
For however long Zubac’s basketball-playing career lasts, the ball-handlers that he plays alongside are going to love him because of his ability to thrive in the pick-and-roll game. He already has an excellent sense of when to roll, pop or slip screens, but what could really separate him from a lot of big men in this area is his screen-setting.
There are times that Zubac sets some punishing screens, both on and off the ball. This frees up his teammates and forces the defense to react, making the decision to either rotate over or dare the ball-handler to make a relatively simple play in most cases.
With D’Angelo Russell’s return imminent, it is time to allow the two youngsters to start building chemistry, especially through high screen-and-roll sets. Russell and Zubac have played just 35 minutes together this season, but the results have been good thus far. When both players are on the floor, they have produced an offensive rating of 117.1 and a defensive rating of 105.9 (per NBA.com).
17 of those 35 minutes were with Zubac replacing Mozgov in the five-man unit that is usually the starting lineup for the Lakers. With Mozgov at the five, the starters have a net rating of 7.6 per 100 possessions. Insert Zubac into that spot and the net rating skyrockets to 48.1 (139.8 offensive rating, 91.7 defensive). Of course, 17 minutes is an extremely small sample size, but it’s something head coach Luke Walton should look into.
Rolling to the basket
Another factor in Zubac’s effective pick-and-roll play is exactly how he rolls to the rim. He is very good at rolling at the right pace, maintaining a passing lane or window for his guards to fit the ball through and put him in a position to make a play. Notice how me makes himself available when he rolls.
Feel for the game
Roaming the baseline
Perhaps the most surprising aspect of Zubac’s game at just 19 years of age is his feel for the game. He has an excellent awareness of where he needs to be on the floor, both offensively and defensively, seemingly always putting himself in the right place at the right time.
When Zubac isn’t directly involved in the play up top, you can often find him roaming the baseline, forcing his man to keep tabs on his movement while surveying the floor as a defender. The easiest offensive player to defend away from the ball is one that doesn’t move. Zubac does a great job of ensuring he stays active without the basketball. Here are a few instances where his teammates rewarded him for it.
Running the floor
A lot of big men like to jog up the court on a consistent basis. After all, they are usually carrying the most weight out there, so it is certainly understandable why that could become a habit. For Zubac, however, he has stayed fairly consistent in his effort to keep up with his teammates and attempt to beat his man down the floor. This is probably something he would not have been able to do consistently at the start of the season, but as his conditioning has improved throughout the year, it’s easy to notice the difference from what we saw back in Summer League.
These are just the first steps in the career of Ivica Zubac. His lovable personality off the court has made him an immediate favorite for both the fans and his teammates, but it’s his play on it that is starting to turn some heads. The man of endless nicknames was viewed by many to be a project that would need a few years of development to even get his feet wet in the NBA. Now, he is more than just an afterthought when discussing Los Angeles’ young core. The Lakers have found multiple diamonds in the rough later in the past few NBA drafts, and Zubac is well on his way to being the next name on that list.