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Ivica Zubac has disappeared from the Lakers’ rotation

Zubac has gone from promising young player to stapled to the bench in one season. What’s going on?

NBA: Denver Nuggets at Los Angeles Lakers Robert Hanashiro-USA TODAY Sports

Ivica Zubac has already had an interesting life as a prospect for our Los Angeles Lakers. Zubac was drafted in 2016 alongside Brandon Ingram, and just like every other player the Lakers have picked outside of the lottery, showed promise in his first year. Going into the 2016 draft, Zubac was seen as a project big man.

Most NBA teams that looked at drafting him would have preferred to stash him in Europe and allow him to develop his skills close to home, but Zubac wanted to play in the NBA right away. The Lakers saw an opportunity to draft a top-20 prospect with the 32nd pick and selected the Croatian teenager.

The 7’1” big man first endeared himself to Lakers fans during his 2016 Las Vegas Summer League run, where he averaged 10.6 points, 7.2 rebounds and 2.6 blocks, all while earning the nickname “Zublocka.” His promising play continued throughout the 2016-17 season, where he averaged 7.5 points and 4.2 rebounds in 16 minutes per game for the Lakers, and 15.8 points and 9.8 rebounds in 30.1 minutes per game with the D-Fenders. More importantly, he continued to the show flashes of potential that gave the city of Los Angeles hope.

The next good sign came when Jeanie Buss hired Magic Johnson and Rob Pelinka to bring back the Larry O’Brien trophy back to Los Angeles. Both Johnson and Pelinka asked for more from the roster from the start of their tenure, encouraging players to fit their games to the mold of a modern NBA player. Players were asked get their body fat down to seven-or-eight percent, and to improve on weaknesses in their games.

Zubac responded by getting down to eight percent body fat, which led to the nickname “8 Percent” from his proud coach Luke Walton. The improvements to his game were not visible during his second stint in the summer league, though.

Most second-year players use summer league to show they have taken the next step in their progression. Both Ingram and D’Angelo Russell were excellent examples of this, but Zubac’s game looked like it took a step back instead of forward. To make matters worse for Zu was the emergence of Lakers rookie Thomas Bryant.

NBA: Preseason-Denver Nuggets at Los Angeles Lakers Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

The Indiana product showed he had a good nose for the ball, an ability to shoot from beyond the three-point line, and brought energy and toughness that were all attributes the new front office wanted from their players moving forward. Bryant would prove to be a roadblock for the Lakers’ second-year center, who already knew he would have to compete with Brook Lopez, Julius Randle and Larry Nance Jr. for minutes at center.

Zubac’s stock has steadily decreased since the start of the season due to his lack of versatility on both sides of the ball. Randle and Nance Jr. are eating up most of the backup center minutes, and Thomas Bryant is taking the G-League by storm. Bryant has played seven games for the South Bay Lakers and is averaging 21.1 points and 7.9 rebounds, and is shooting 46.2 percent on 5.6 attempts from beyond the arc.

Both big men have shown the Lakers they have the potential to play NBA minutes, but they bring different skills to the table. This is where Zubac should begin to worry. While Ivica can use his size to his advantage, and has shown flashes of being capable of altering shots directly at the rim, he has yet to prove he can stretch his shooting range out to the three-point line or excel in team defensive schemes.

On the other hand, Bryant has shown he is someone that can space floor, and has potential to protect the paint on the defensive end. He also might be a better fit for the Lakers’ uptempo pace.

Zubac has played just 12 total minutes in five appearances this season, barely leaving his place at the end of the bench. That’s the lowest amount of on-court time of any player on the roster, even less than Luol Deng (13) and Alex Caruso (19). The signs are beginning to point toward an early exit to a promising young center, who many projected to be a solidified part of the Lakers’ rotation just one season ago.

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