Since Ivica Zubac re-entered the rotation for the Los Angeles Lakers, he’s been a completely a completely different player. From rolling to the rim quickly and decisively to put himself in good position to emphatically dunk, to setting mammoth screens to free up ballhandlers and even protecting the rim by building a wall of verticality around it, Zubac’s play has been as different as night and day from what he showed last season.
If that sounds a lot like a combination of various aspects of Tyson Chandler and JaVale McGee’s games, that’s no accident. Zubac told Mike Trudell of Lakers.com that such similarities are very much intentional, and a credit to how McGee and Chandler’s mentoring helped him stay ready and learn how to be more effective when he got his opportunities.
MT: You’ve said multiple times that Chandler and JaVale McGee have been really good vets to you…
Zubac: Yes, for sure. JaVale, at the beginning of the season when I was not playing and we were not doing good, told me ‘I know you’re not happy with being on the bench, but you gotta work, you gotta stay ready because we’re gonna need you.’ JaVale was on me every day, and even when his conditioning was not really good at the beginning of the season, he would call me and be like, ‘Let’s run together after practice.’ We did a bunch of stuff for our conditioning with Gunnar, and then Tyson got here, and we have the same agent* and he was like, ‘Tyson is an amazing guy, he is going to help you a lot.’ And since Day 1, Tyson has been sitting next to me on the plane, and after every game whether I played or not, we talk about the game, go over everything that happened. We think similar, and some stuff I didn’t usually see before, now I can see. When I don’t see it, he explains it to me, and now I’m seeing some different stuff that I didn’t see before.
Chandler and McGee’s fingerprints have been all over Zubac’s improved play. Zubac already nearly has as many dunks (14) as he had all of last season (23) in 210 minutes, just over half of his minutes total (410) from last year. Opponents are also shooting 4.8 percent worse than league average when defended by Zubac within six feet of the basket.
According to Zubac, those aren’t the only areas in which McGee and Chandler have helped him change his playing style.
MT: What’s an example of that?
Zubac: Angles of setting screens. I always thought, you only have to hit a guy, but he explained to me about angles, so that helps. Then a lot of stuff on defense. Positioning of the guards on screens, or where I should be on pick and rolls. Who can I help off, and stuff like that.
Little fundamental changes like those can’t be overlooked when evaluating Zubac’s dramatic improvement from his sophomore year.
The elephant in the room with all of this play is how much easier a playmaker like LeBron James makes things on a relatively mobile big with soft hands like Zubac, but to go from completely out of the rotation to difference-maker isn’t something that usually happens in the NBA, and Zubac still deserves a ton of credit for how much better he’s played. And it sounds like so do McGee and Chandler, who should be appreciated not just for being huge contributors for the Lakers on the court this year, but for helping their replacement prep to deal with their absences.
For more Lakers talk, subscribe to the Silver Screen and Roll podcast feed on iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher or Google Podcasts. All stats per NBA.com and Basketball-Reference.com. You can follow Harrison on Twitter at @hmfaigen.