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Luke Walton thinks Ivica Zubac has ‘earned’ right to keep playing for Lakers, even when JaVale McGee returns

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Lakers head coach Luke Walton wants to keep Ivica Zubac in the rotation when JaVale McGee comes back, and he has a plan for how to do it.

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Denver Nuggets v Los Angeles Lakers Photo by Harry How/Getty Images

In less than a week, third-year center Ivica Zubac has gone from an end of the bench player to a fringe starter for the Los Angeles Lakers.

Over his last three games, the 21-year-old is averaging 17.7 points per game on a blistering hot 78.1 percent shooting from the field to go along with an impressive 8.7 rebounds and 2.7 blocks per game. One-way tickets to Zu Island are getting harder and harder to come by with each game.

However, Zubac’s resurgence has also caused somewhat of a good problem for the Lakers. With Zubac now providing solid minutes, head coach Luke Walton will have to split playing time at the center position between him, Tyson Chandler and JaVale McGee, who is currently recovering from pneumonia (via ESPN LA):

Question: Is there a way do you think, with everybody at full strength, that you can still find minutes for Zu?

Walton: “Yeah. And the way he’s playing right now it’ll be tough not to. He has been really good in these opportunities, and I’ve said it after every game, ‘give him a lot of credit because he has worked and worked, and stayed ready.’

“I told everyone from the beginning of the season, I said ‘listen, we have a very deep team now. And not everyone is going to be able to play, but I guarantee you throughout an NBA season, everybody will have their opportunities.’”

Walton also reiterated how hard Zubac worked to put himself into the position he is now:

“As a professional, it’s your job to be able to seize that opportunity when it comes, and he is a perfect example of that. He stays, he plays 2-on-2 after practice every day. He comes in early with [Lakers trainer] Gunnar [Peterson] in the weight room, he’s getting shots with his coaches before and after practice. So he’s done his work and it’s nice to see that paying off.

“He’s earned that right to continue to help our team play right now, so when JaVale comes back, obviously we’ll have to ease him back into it because of how long he’s been out and what he’s been going through. Tyson is 36, so it’ll be nice to be able to give him games off, the back-to-backs off, so we’ll continue to be able to find spots for Zu.”

If Zubac continues to trend upward as the season progresses, he could re-enter the conversation as being one of the key pieces of the Lakers’ young core. It’s easy to forget that Zubac is as old as Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram, Moe Wagner and Svi Mykhailiuk because he was drafted in 2016.

McGee might be the Lakers’ starting center right now, but he’s on a one-year deal and will be 31 years old by the time the season ends. The same can be said for Tyson Chandler (other than the age).

Meanwhile, the Lakers can extend the $1.9 million qualifying offer to Zubac next summer and make him a restricted free agent. If they want to keep him around beyond this season, they can.

Whatever the Lakers decide to do with Zubac down the line, it’s clear we’ll at least be seeing more of him this season. Given how he’s done in his playing time so far, that’s a better outcome than most thought possible for such a scenario.

For more Lakers talk, subscribe to the Silver Screen and Roll podcast feed on iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher or Google Podcasts. You can follow Christian on Twitter at @RadRivas.