When it was announced that JaVale McGee would not suit up for the Los Angeles Lakers for the third consecutive game because of a respiratory infection, almost everyone assumed Walton would start Tyson Chandler, who had started in the two previous games McGee was sidelined for.
Instead, Walton threw fans a curveball and decided to start Ivica Zubac, who prior to Friday had only started 11 games in his career, all of which were during his rookie season. Perhaps a few years ago Walton’s decision wouldn’t have been met with such heavy criticism, but in the limited time Zubac has seen the floor this season, he’s looked lost and uncoordinated.
So what exactly compelled Walton to call on the 21 year old, Croatian born center, to go head-to-head with New Orleans Pelicans superstar Anthony Davis? According to Walton, he felt comfortable going to Zubac because he’s done a great job of staying ready all season.
“Every time I’m in the building, he’s doing something,” Walton said of Zubac. “He’s either in the weight room or he’s running, he’s playing 2-on-2, he’s working out with the coaches.
“You notice those things and when those opportunities come, that’s when you feel confident to go to someone that hasn’t been playing a lot.”
Walton informed Zubac that he was getting the starting nod on Thursday if Julius Randle suited up for the Pelicans. That night, Zubac said that JaVale McGee texted him to hype him up and make sure he was ready for his big night.
“He told me to get our film guy to queue up all the video [in which] guys made Anthony Davis and Julius [Randle] miss on the left block, right block, on elbows. That really helped,” Zubac said
When his number was finally called, Zubac delivered.
In 32 minutes against the Pelicans, Zubac put up 16 points on an efficient 8-10 shooting from the field, 11 rebounds, 2 steals and 2 blocks. There’s a decent chance he would have gone for more if he didn’t gotten into early foul trouble.
While some might look at Zubac’s game and think it was just a lucky night for him, Zubac knows the amount of patience and preparation that went into making Friday night possible.
“I worked a lot of this, to be ready for this moment,” Zubac said. “I knew if someone goes down, out of JaVale or Tyson [Chandler], I have to step up. My conditioning is in a great place, but when I get in I’m just trying to do simple things — just set hard screens, roll, be a dunker, relocate from one dunker [spot] to another one. On defense, I just to keep up with what the coaches told us to do.”
The highlight of the night for Zubac was on the defensive end, when he swatted away a shot from Randle, his former teammate, in the fourth quarter.
“It felt really good,” Zubac said. “He’s been bullying me in practice since I got in the league, so it felt good to block it. That helped us win the game.”
When McGee inevitably returns to the lineup, Zubac will likely return to the end of the bench, but at least Walton knows that he has some insurance at the center position if someone goes down with an injury or on nights someone just isn’t getting it done.
For one night, though, Zubac reminded fans of the player he once was and maybe the player he still can be. That, in and of itself, is pretty remarkable.