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Ivica Zubac is entering a make or break season with the Lakers

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Coming off of a forgettable sophomore season, Ivica Zubac will have to improve drastically to stay in the Lakers’ future plans.

NBA: Dallas Mavericks at Los Angeles Lakers Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

The Los Angeles Lakers are coming off of their most successful in years thanks in no small part to the contributions they got from their young players. However, while most of that group made major strides this past season, Ivica Zubac struggled to rediscover his old form.

The No. 32 pick in the 2016 NBA draft, Zubac wasn’t a player that was expected to make an impact in his rookie season despite the fact that he had been playing professionally in Europe since he was 16. Not only was he one of the youngest players in the draft, but his slow footed style of play looked like it was going to take some time to translate.

It only look a few minutes of summer league action for the tune to change on the Croatian born big man, at least among Lakers fans.

In five games with the Lakers at the Las Vegas Summer League in 2016, Zubac showed he could do a little of everything, averaging 10.6 points, 7.2 rebounds and 2.6 blocks per game.

He was far from the most athletic players on the floor, but he made up for it with his impressive shot blocking instincts that had some fans calling him “Zublocka.” Zubac also showed he possessed soft touch around the rim, earning him a premature comparison to a three-time NBA All-Star and former Defensive Player of the Year from his teammate D’Angelo Russell.

“I tell him all the time he reminds me of Marc Gasol a little bit,” Russell said. “Big fella with some sweetness to him. He’s really good, I don’t think people know how good he is yet.”

As bold as that might sound, Russell apparently wasn’t the only one that thought so at the time. Former Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak “privately likened” Zubac to Gasol, according to Kevin Ding. Metta World Peace even went as far to say Zubac was just a “better looking” Gasol.

And for a while it looked like that might’ve been the case. Zubac would go on to follow up his breakout summer league performances with a surprisingly productive regular season with the Lakers, where he averaged 7.5 points, 4.2 rebounds and 0.9 blocks per game in 38 games, 11 of which he started.

Now a year removed from his rookie campaign, fans are wondering what happened to that Ivica Zubac.

NBA: Los Angeles Lakers at Miami Heat Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

Unlike the beginning of his rookie season, Zubac came into the Lakers’ most recent campaign with high expectations from the fan base. While no one expected him to start over Brook Lopez, there was hope that he would build upon his exciting rookie season and take the steps toward becoming a starting caliber center for a team that desperately needed a long-term answer at the five spot.

Those expectations were almost immediately thrown out of the window as Zubac struggled to contribute meaningful minutes during the Lakers’ championship run at the NBA’s Las Vegas Summer League, a stage Zubac had performed so well on just a year prior.

It wasn’t just that his shots weren’t falling, he looked like someone that hadn’t picked up a basketball all summer. He was the source of several unforced turnovers, blown layups at the rim and defensive mistakes, albeit amidst perpetually helter-skelter summer league defensive coverages.

Zubac knew he disappointed and he devoted the remainder of his summer to coming back a quicker, sharper player. The results looked good on paper, with Zubac dropping from a team-high 18.4 percent body fat at the end of his rookie season to 8 percent body fat at the start of last year’s training camp, but he still struggled to make an impact on the court and eventually fell out of head coach Luke Walton’s rotation. Ironically, his regression could be a result of the amount of weight he lost in the offseason.

A large part of Zubac’s success his rookie season was his ability to bully other players in the painted area, where he converted an above league average 55 percent of his field goal attempts, per stats.nba.com. That was fairly easy for him to do at 7-foot-1 and roughly 280 pounds.

Now nearly 40 pounds lighter, according to nba.com, Zubac looked noticeably more mobile on defense, a good thing, but he had a tougher time finishing through contact. The challenge for him now is to gain that strength back while not losing the mobility he gained with the weight he dropped.

Recent pictures of him from the Lakers official Twitter account suggest he’s on the right track.

Unfortunately, time might be running out for the 21-year-old center. Zubac will face a number of obstacles to get back into Walton’s rotation this summer, starting with the NBA draft on June 21.

While rumors have been dismissed about the Lakers making a first-round promise to former five-star big man Mitchell Robinson, the front office is still reportedly “seriously considering” taking him with the No. 25 pick. If the Lakers do end up taking Robinson, they will have three roster spots committed to players that are best suited at center (Zubac, Robinson and Thomas Bryant) and none of them are currently NBA starters.

For a team looking to contend for the playoffs as soon as next season, the Lakers need more of a sure thing at center and that could signal the end of the road for one of the team’s young centers. One would assume Zubac and his non-guaranteed $1.5 million salary would be the first to go in that scenario.

However, if Zubac can show the same flashes he showed in his rookie season starting with summer league in July, his role could increase substantially as soon as next season.

NBA: Los Angeles Lakers at Detroit Pistons Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

With Brook Lopez set to his unrestricted free agency on July 1, the Lakers will head into the offseason with a hole at the center position. While it’s possible Lopez could return to Los Angeles for a second go-round on a discounted price, Lopez said in his exit interview in March that he would only except less than his market value if the Lakers were “an absolute contender.”

If the Lakers strike out in free agency yet again, the 30-year-old center will almost certainly leave for a team with more than an outside chance of making the playoffs. Lopez has only made the postseason twice in his 10-year career and both times ended in first-round exits. In the event Lopez leaves, the starting center spot would be Zubac’s to lose.

Although traditional back to the basket centers like Zubac aren’t a necessity in today’s NBA, they’re not completely invaluable either, even on teams that like to play fast like the Lakers and the Golden State Warriors.

The Warriors have started 6-foot-11, 270-pound center Zaza Pachulia in 127 of the 139 games he’s been healthy in the regular season for the past two seasons. By no stretch of the imagination does anyone consider Pachulia an elite athlete or an NBA All-Star (unless you’re from Georgia), but his size still proves valuable in a limited role.

The same could said of Zubac, who would likely only average around 15 minutes per game with Kyle Kuzma and (hopefully) Julius Randle eating up the bulk of the minutes in the frontcourt.

At just 21 years old, Zubac still has plenty of time to prove himself as an NBA player. However, as far as his time in Los Angeles goes, he’s entering a make or break season with the Lakers.

All stats were provided by stats.nba.com unless otherwise noted. You can follow Christian Rivas on Twitter at @RadRivas.