ANAHEIM — Ivica Zubac knows he hasn’t played as well as fans of the Los Angeles Lakers were hoping he would. With the team’s massive void at center behind JaVale McGee, this finally looked like the year where Zubac could grab a role if he wanted it. Add in that the team opted to keep him over promising sophomore Thomas Bryant and glimpses of an improved skillset during FIBA play for Croatia, and it appeared like Zubac might really, finally be the Lakers’ primary backup center.
Then he got sick on his way back from Croatia. And not just a cold. Sick enough to be running a fever and gasping for air for days when training camp kicked off.
“The first week or even more of training camp, I don’t know how I got through it. I couldn’t run much, I couldn’t do anything. I didn’t have much air in my lungs,” Zubac told Silver Screen and Roll.
It showed on the court, and Zubac’s numbers still haven’t recovered after two stronger efforts. Zubac has the fourth-worst net rating on the team, as the Lakers have been outscored by 23.5 points per 100 possessions while he’s on the floor (although, to be fair, he hasn’t played many minutes with LeBron James, a benefit to that metric other players have received).
But Zubac isn’t making excuses. He just seems to want people to understand that he wants this role as badly as they want someone to be able to fill it, and that he’s more disappointed right now than anyone else could be.
“I was in the best shape of my life,” Zubac said. “I was so frustrated because that first game I looked terrible on the court ... I wanted to do stuff but I just felt so weak and so tired that I couldn’t do anything.”
Zubac scored two points in seven minutes against the Denver Nuggets that were only memorable for how out of place he looked. By the next game Zubac looked better offensively at least, scoring 9 points on 4-5 shooting but still not showing the type of defense the Lakers are looking for from him.
By Zubac’s third preseason game, though, he was beginning to hit his stride again, scoring 4 points and swatting two shots in six quick minutes against the Sacramento Kings.
“He did a really nice job early of blocking some shots and getting our team out and running with his defense,” Walton said. “He’s getting back to what we were seeing him do this summer.”
Zubac got even closer to that level in the Lakers’ loss to the Clippers Saturday night. While his team may have taken a defeat, Zubac looked as good as he had all preseason despite his voice still sounding weathered from the cold and possessing a noticeable cough. In just 13 minutes, Zubac finished with 8 points, 6 rebounds, 1 block and his first positive plus-minus rating of the season, as Zubac was one of only two Lakers whom the team outscored the Clippers when they were on the floor.
But while it’s dangerous to ever try and glean too much from plus-minus — and that goes double for preseason plus-minus — Brandon Ingram thinks his fellow 2016 draft pick gives the Lakers an element they don’t otherwise have when he’s able to be effective.
“He’s really strong down low. Rebounding the basketball, rolling. He’s one of our best screeners as a big man,” Ingram said. “When he comes into the game, he’s very smart, he can pass the basketball and he has a soft touch.”
Zubac hasn’t been able to demonstrate those things as often as he hoped he’d get to during the preseason so far, but he doesn’t want people giving up on him. He worked hard all summer for a shot to contribute to a Lakers roster on which Walton told him he had a chance to earn real minutes, and he isn’t giving up yet.
“It was so frustrating because I didn’t take any days off in the summer. I worked hard here, I worked hard with my national team and I was in such good shape and then I got that fever and all that work it was gone in a few days,” Zubac said. “Now I’m getting back healthier. I’m still not 100 percent but I’m feeling much better and I can play better.”
Now he just has to show it.