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Most Interesting Lakers No. 7: Ivica Zubac is primed for a comeback season

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Ivica Zubac looks ready to bounce back with the Lakers this season.

NBA: Los Angeles Lakers at New Orleans Pelicans Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

Editor’s Note: The Silver Screen and Roll staff is counting down the most interesting Lakers heading into next season (The 15 guaranteed contracts plus the two guys on two-way contracts). We continue today with No. 7, Ivica Zubac, and will be counting down to the Laker we think is most interesting with a new piece each weekday until we hit No. 1.

Going into training camp last season, all the buzz in Los Angeles surrounded the Lakers’ pair of No. 2 overall picks Lonzo Ball and Brandon Ingram. However, there was also a great deal of excitement for Ivica Zubac’s sophomore season.

In his rookie season with the Lakers, Zubac looked like one of the league’s up-and-coming big men. So much so that general manager Rob Pelinka called the former No. 32 overall pick one of the “pillars for the future.”

It’s possible that is still the case for the 21-year-old, but such a bright outcome is no longer as sure of a thing as it once appeared.

After struggling to make an impact in summer league in 2017, where he dominated just the year prior, it was clear something was off with Zubac. It wasn’t until the end of the season that he started to resemble the player he was in his rookie season.

During his exit interview in April, Zubac revealed that his disappointing play early in the season was his own doing and vowed not to make the same mistakes this summer.

“I think a lot of [my struggles] were because of me,” Zubac said. “I didn’t get to prepare like I wanted to. I could have done much better. It was my first summer in the NBA so now I know the things I have to work on, how to get prepared. I’m more experienced now and I’ve just got to make sure it doesn’t happen again.”

With a few weeks left until training camp, it looks like Zubac has kept his word.

According to Zubac, he’s dropped 20 lbs. in the offseason. Zubac also lost a considerable amount of weight in the summer between his rookie and sophomore season, but he looks noticeably stronger than he did last season in recent photos.

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Earlier in the summer, I wrote that the key for Zubac this offseason would be to gain the strength he lost as a result of his weight loss last summer back in a healthy way. Getting that strength back will allow him to back guys down in the post the way he used to while maintaining the newfound mobility he displayed on the defensive end last season.

While it’s always dangerous to fall into the trap that is offseason workout pictures and videos, his body transformation is hard to ignore.

The other reality is that Zubac is going to have plenty of opportunity to bounce back and be the answer for the Lakers at center, and not just because of any improvements he’s made.

JaVale McGee, who the Lakers signed to a one-year deal for the veteran’s minimum in free agency, is widely expected to be head coach Luke Walton’s starting center on opening night, but according to Eric Pincus of Bleacher Report, Zubac has impressed the front office this summer.

If Zubac can prove he’s a legitimate starting center in training camp, it would give a nice bump to the Lakers’ ceiling. Will he close games regularly? Probably not, especially if Walton is going to experiment with LeBron James at center, but it makes them a deeper team at the position they’re arguably the weakest.

He’ll have some competition for the starting job with McGee and rookie big man Moritz Wagner, who the Lakers took with their lone first-round pick in this year’s draft, but Zubac has put himself in the best possible position to succeed and fill what looks like it might be a Grand Canyon sized hole at center for the Lakers.

Zubac likely isn’t as bad as he was last year, or as promising as hope-addled Lakers fans dreamed during his rookie campaign. The truth likely lies somewhere in the middle, and while on some level Zubac is lucky to even get this big of a chance, it will still be up to him to seize it and show that the Lakers’ center rotation is more solid than some think. Whether or not he can will not just be interesting to watch, but potentially critical in determining the Lakers’ rotation this year.

The countdown so far:

7. Ivica Zubac

8. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope

9. Moe Wagner

10. Michael Beasley

11. Svi Mykhailiuk

12. JaVale McGee

13. Isaac Bonga

14. Lance Stephenson

15. Luol Deng

16. Alex Caruso

17. Travis Wear