LOS ANGELES — It wasn’t so long ago that a regular set to close Los Angeles Lakers games involved a foreign-born seven-footer setting a monster screen for a guard who was often criticized for shooting too much. More often than not, the screen was followed by that guard knocking down a jumper and sealing a Lakers win as the seven-footer high-fived him and gave him a friendly butt slap as they walked back towards their bench while the opposing coach called timeout in frustration.
To say Ivica Zubac and D’Angelo Russell aren’t Pau Gasol and Kobe Bryant yet would be the understatement of the century, but the jumper from the icy-veined guard that put the Lakers’ 120-116 win over the Denver Nuggets in the refrigerator was eerily reminiscent of a crunch time staple for those Lakers of yore, and indicative of a potentially promising partnership between the two.
“I really, truly believe he is going to be special,” Russell said of Zubac. “He's always in the right position it seems like. He doesn't force anything, he makers the right plays, you rarely see him mess up.“
Russell, who has been one of Zubac’s biggest champions since comparing him to Marc Gasol at Las Vegas Summer League, isn’t surprised by the big man’s success.
"He just knows how to play,” Russell said. “I recognized it right away a few weeks ago at practice, and he's been improving and showing you guys (the media) ever since."
More crucially for Zubac, his head coach is beginning to convert to the church of Ivica as well, showing his faith by playing him all but the final 12 seconds of the final quarter when the Lakers needed to switch everything.
"Zu was great at rolling down the lane. He just makes the simple play,” Walton said. "He has earned the right to be in the rotation full-time.”
Walton wasn’t expecting Zubac to earn that right so early.
"Absolutely,” Walton said when asked if he was surprised by Zubac’s rapid success. “For a 19-year old that is living here in America for the first time and first-hand seeing what the NBA is about.
“He was a little on the heavy side earlier in the season and going back-and-forth to the D-League,” Walton continued. “To mentally handle all that, to mentally take on the challenge of losing weight and now taking advantage of the random opportunities he's gotten, he's played himself into the rotation, and I think that's a lot more than we would've expected so far this season."
Zubac has surpassed those expectations in large part due to his precocious pick-and-roll skills. Russell hurt his knee right as Zubac was initially beginning to break into the rotation, but he might already be the Lakers’ most versatile screener, which is exactly what Russell needed to trigger his own game in his return to the lineup.
It’s not a coincidence Russell dropped a career-high 10 assists to go with his 22 points in one of the first games the two have played extended time together, or that Zubac poured in a career-high 17 points of his own. Russell and Zubac’s games fit together like two pieces of a puzzle that could be forming a picture of the Lakers’ permanent starting lineup as early as next season.
Part of the reason for their effectiveness together is simply Zubac’s sheer size. He’s a gigantic obstacle that Russell can weave around like a traffic cone to secure enough airspace for his jumper.
Russell can also use the threat of both his and Zubac’s penetration to freeze defenders and free up shooters:
Or, when Zubac makes real, bone-crunching contact on his screens, Russell has all the space he needs to get downhill for his jumper:
“It’s much easier when you have a guard who knows to pass from the pick-and-roll,” Zubac said. “When you set a good screen, sometimes you expect to get rewarded, and D’Angelo definitely knows when to reward the big guy for rolling and when to take shots by himself. It feels great to play pick-and-roll with him.”
Russell and Zubac played seven of the 43 minutes they’ve played together so far this season against the Nuggets, and the numbers were fairly astounding:
In their total floor time alongside each other this season, Russell and Zubac have outscored opponents at a rate that would equal 13 points per 100 possessions, which is the the fourth-best net-rating on the team among two-man pairings to play more than 40 minutes together.
Their chemistry is even more impressive given that Russell and Zubac only began practicing together a few weeks ago.
"It feels good to play with him,” Zubac said. “He's a great player and sees everything on the court... He was doing all the right plays and he needs to keep playing like that, and I think he can do it every night. He's going to be a good player for the Lakers."
If the two continue to blend together like great historical pairings such as peanut butter and jelly or Kobe and Pau, they might both be “good players” for the Lakers moving forward.
All quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. All stats per NBA.com and Basketball-Reference.com. Harrison Faigen is co-host of the Locked on Lakers podcast (subscribe here), and you can follow him on Twitter at @hmfaigen.