The Los Angeles Lakers haven’t done Ivica Zubac wrong this year, but things certainly haven’t been easy on him either.
The third-year Croatian big man started training camp sick with an illness he picked up on his way back to the United States, and was frustrated that the conditioning he had spent all season building up was back at square one.
“It was so frustrating because I didn’t take any days off in the summer. I worked hard here, I worked hard with my national team and I was in such good shape and then I got that fever and all that work it was gone in a few days,” Zubac told me in October. “Now I’m getting back healthier. I’m still not 100 percent but I’m feeling much better and I can play better.”
Zubac wouldn’t get a real chance to show it for months. The center got 20 minutes in the Lakers’ third game of the season against the Portland Trail Blazers as they searched for something, anything from their center rotation.
But Zubac still wasn’t back to 100 percent at that point, and wouldn’t receive more than 12 minutes in a game until Dec. 21, with his breakout performance against the Memphis Grizzlies coming when the Lakers needed him most, giving them a legit seven-footer as they dealt with injury woes in their frontcourt.
Zubac stayed ready for his opportunity and delivered for the next two games afterwards, but then struggled in the absence of LeBron James and was once again relegated to spot minutes.
But then the Lakers needed Zubac against the Detroit Pistons’ frontcourt, and he stepped up and boxed out to help them get a LeBron-less win. He didn’t play more than 14 minutes in the next three games, but against the Oklahoma City Thunder, he once again delivered when the Lakers were desperate, dropping a career-high 26 points on 12-14 shooting while grabbing 12 huge rebounds.
In the process, Zubac not only showcased his growth as a player, but also potentially locked in his roster spot for the rest of the season.
Sam Amick of the Athletic reported on the Lakers’ kinda, sorta, maybe having interest in Carmelo Anthony, but one of the difficulties he highlighted for the team in said possible pursuit was that Zubac wouldn’t be as easy to let go of as it seemed earlier this season:
After the Lakers’ Thursday night win in Oklahoma City that improved their record to 5-7 since James went down with his groin injury on Christmas Day, it seems safe to say this much: If anyone winds up giving up their spot in order for the Lakers to sign Anthony, it won’t be third-year big man Ivica Zubac. The 21-year-old was seen by some earlier in the season as a possible candidate to be cut if Anthony was added, as he’s entering restricted free agency this summer.
But Zubac turned in the best outing of his career against the Thunder, with a career-high 26 points and 12 rebounds in 28 minutes. After not playing for much of the season, it was the eighth time in the past 15 games that coach Luke Walton has played him at least 19 minutes.
After the game, Walton praised Zubac for improving enough to make it possible for Walton to play him so much more.
“He was big around the rim and he’s got a little nice, soft touch down there. Some of it’s his teammates are looking for him and when he gets that ball around the rim he’s pretty good at finishing,” Walton said on Spectrum Sportsnet, before highlighting the real evolution of Zubac’s game.
“But where he’s really grown is becoming more physical,” Walton said. “I think playing behind JaVale and Tyson has really helped with that, because he’s setting solid screens every time now. And that’s what gets big men open, and he’s starting to understand spacing and pocket-passing more.”
Zubac put the growth Walton referenced on display to reporters following the game as he confidently described how he was able to dominate against the Thunder.
“Just rolling hard. Trying to find that perfect position, because sometimes they were doubling on the screens, sometimes they were in a drop and sometimes they were at the level,” Zubac said on Spectrum Sportsnet. “I had to find that perfect pocket so I could make it easy for the guys to find me.”
Early on in Zubac’s career, he often sounded like a student that had just crammed for a book report when discussing what he needed to improve on and what was happening on the floor, but his improved understanding of exactly what his role is for the Lakers was easy to see on the floor, and in the way he talks about his role now.
“When I’m in that perfect pocket and they give me the ball it’s an easy play. It’s me who’s open, or the defender from the corner steps up and it’s an easy pass to the cutter,” Zubac said.
Heady stuff like that is far from the public perception of Zubac. He’s big, and while he’s quick for a seven-footer, that still looks slow to most while playing against other NBA players.
It’s led to many fans seeing him — like they see most seven-footers — as an oaf, something he (understandably) doesn’t appreciate, to the point that when Zubac was accused by tons of people tweeting at me of being the teammate LeBron James hit in the face with a pass in a summer scrimmage, he felt the need to push back on that idea.
Definitely not since I’m with my national team and unfortunately LeBron is not Croatian ♂️— Ivica Zubac (@ivicazubac) September 8, 2018
Zubac has gotten a chance to show the catching skills that make it unlikely he’d get hit in the face even if LeBron was Croatian, and he’s clearly elevated his understanding of the game since his days as a promising rookie (and then a sophomore who just looked lost).
The way Zubac’s teammates showered him with glowing praise for what he’s been able to do after the game perfectly encapsulated how much better he’s gotten, and why this team now needs what Zubac can bring.
“Zubac was big. He’s really been big for us all year. Every time he’s gotten minutes, he’s producing,” Lakers guard Lonzo Ball told reporters in Oklahoma City. “I’m proud of him.”
Kyle Kuzma doubled down on that sentiment, using the word “huge” five times to almost-disbelievingly gush about how, well, huge Zubac was against the Thunder.
“Huge. Huge. Super huge. He was huge on the battle for the glass, boxing out Steven Adams every time,” Kuzma told reporters of Zubac’s impact. “Zu, he was huge.”
Kuzma’s reaction to getting Zubac a dunk out of a pick and roll they ran painted a picture with his actions of how happy this team is for their affable seven-footer’s success, with Kuzma beaming like a proud parent after big dunk from Zubac before making sure to seek him out for a double high-five.
Look how happy Kyle Kuzma is for Ivica Zubac pic.twitter.com/NoRAbXRQF8— CJ Fogler (@cjzero) January 18, 2019
With his teammates looking to set him up for success, Zubac has found it with the Lakers, displaying the offseason improvements he was almost denied from showcasing with a better grasp of how he can be effective using mammoth screens and his soft hands around the rim.
As a result, the Lakers are 6.9 points per 100 possessions better when Zubac plays than when he sits over the last 15 games, according to NBA.com, with his performance against the Thunder serving an exclamation point on his triumphant return to the rotation.
“It was good to see, and we obviously needed all of it tonight,” Walton said.
And because Zubac was able to deliver such a performance to the Lakers once again, the team seems almost certain to keep him around. He isn’t perfect, but with JaVale McGee and Tyson Chandler dealing with various maladies, Zubac is exactly what the Lakers needed this year.
He just needed a chance to show it.
All quotes transcribed via Spectrum Sportsnet. 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.