It was through a post-draft interview with Los Angeles Lakers sideline reporter Mike Trudell where the team’s fans first met Ivica Zubac.
The 7’1” Croatian big, who was taken in the second round of the 2016 NBA draft, immediately endeared himself to Lakers fans with his infectious smile, and a genuine childlike excitement in not only being drafted to NBA, but for being given the opportunity to join the Lakers — his favorite professional team growing up.
After his first set of Summer League games, fans of the team could not have been more thrilled for the rim protecting prowess “Zublocka” showcased. His natural instincts coupled with his solid hands, and soft touch around the rim on offense, hinted that the team may have drafted a steal.
His first season of action only added fuel to the fanbase’s excitement. Averaging a solid 7.5 points, 4.2 rebounds, and just under a block a game in only 16 minutes per contest, Zubac displayed — at the very least — that he belonged in the league.
Unfortunately, last season’s sophomore campaign quickly dampened many fan’s expectations, starting when the center struggled mightily in his second Summer League, in which he was regularly rejected at the rim and pushed off his spots by the opposition.
Contextually, it did not help his cause that the team used their second round pick on Thomas Bryant — a high motored big who flashed an ability to better keep up in the team’s new grab and go offense — and traded for a former All-Star center in Brook Lopez during the summer.
Zubac thus struggled to find minutes with the organization’s parent team last season, spending the majority of the year with the club’s G League affiliate, the South Bay Lakers.
His lack of opportunity was most evidently seen in despite playing in five more games in his second season, he somehow managed to play nearly 200 less minutes than his rookie year.
Despite all of this, the team surprisingly opted to retain the 21-year-old by guaranteeing his team option for this upcoming season, releasing the aforementioned Bryant in the process, thus setting the stage for what could be the pivotal season of his NBA career.
Lakers assistant coach Jesse Mermuys recently sat down with Trudell to discuss the upcoming season and new roster, in which he shared that he believes that James’ arrival and on court presence could hugely benefit Zubac:
“Those guys make the game easier for big guys, and Zu is a big boy. He’s skilled. He’s massive out there. He changes shots in the paint and at the rim when he’s playing big and confident. Young players always are on a little bit of a rollercoaster, and I think you saw that with Zu.
He’d have great games, and he’d have bad games, and that’s part of developing in the NBA. But, when you have better players, especially for big guys, it makes the game a lot easier for you to be more consistent. He could be competing for minutes, we’ll just have to see how it goes for him.”
James joining the team is just one of a few reasons to believe Zubac will have a puncher’s chance in rebuilding his NBA stock.
For one, the team is suddenly devoid of traditional centers in an offseason that saw Lopez sign with the Bucks, Julius Randle sign with the Pelicans, the aforementioned release of Bryant, and Javale McGee and rookie Moe Wagner being the only “centers” coming in over the summer.
McGee, who will be most likely slotted as the starting center, has not averaged more than 12 minutes a game since the 2013-14 NBA season. And for Wagner, it still remains to be seen how much run he immediately gets with the main roster as a rookie, therefor leaving the door open for Zubac to get considerable time with the new look Lakers, and specifically with one, LeBron James.
One of Mermuys’ common emphases throughout the interview was the help he believes the veterans, and James specifically, will provide Zubac and the rest of their young core through their ability to create.
A member of two rebuilding seasons in Los Angeles, Zubac has not consistently played with a prominent self and team creator. Though there were instances last season that provided glimpses that made for one of the better stretches of Zubac’s sophomore campaign, where he played alongside Isaiah Thomas in the Lakers’ bench unit.
Despite not being the former player he was, Thomas still maintained the ability to get into the paint and draw help defenders, which opened up drop-off chances and vertical avenues for Zubac to simply catch and finish, instead of catching the ball with his back to the basket.
The Thomas/Zubac experiment’s success should provide optimism that with James, one of basketball’s most prolific passers and gravity inducing forces in history, Zubac’s minutes should be substantially more “easier” and productive this upcoming season.
Mermuys also acknowledged the ups and downs young players, especially bigs, go through in the early stages of their career, drops Zubac exhibited last season. But with James in tow, he might just be in for some ups in his third campaign.