As recently as early November, the idea of Ivica Zubac serving as a trade asset for the Los Angeles Lakers — beyond his contract being used for salary matching purposes — was laughable. Zubac was coming off of a disappointing sophomore campaign and had yet to make an impact on the Lakers in his third season either.
Then he started against Anthony Davis and the Pelicans and everything changed. Zubac began a stretch of games in which he stepped up whenever the Lakers needed him, demonstrating soft hands that could catch any pass and deft touch around the rim that — along with his development into a helpful defender — allowed head coach Luke Walton to push Zubac into a bigger role.
Zubac’s progress hasn’t gone unnoticed around the NBA, as anonymous scouts told Dan Woike of the L.A. Times that Zubac had impressed them to the point that while he might not be the centerpiece of a trade anytime soon, he might be an extra bargaining chip the Lakers can throw onto the table to make a deal work:
The 7-1 Zubac has intrigued scouts with his soft hands and effectiveness in pick-and-roll offense. The reviews go from “poor man’s Marc Gasol” on offense because of his great feel for the game to “plays like a center should” to “just a fringe guy.”
One theory on Zubac: He’s precisely the kind of player a team could ask for late in trade talks — good enough and inexpensive enough for a team to acquire, yet not meaningful enough for the Lakers to kill a major trade.
If that’s true, just call Zubac a transcendent and flawless Ariana Grande album, because it sounds like he has all the traits of a “sweetener” the Lakers might be able to use in a trade.
The real question is if the Lakers should even be looking to move Zubac. This isn’t to say he should be untouchable — no one on this roster has earned such status, and the Lakers have reportedly made Zubac available anyway — but Zubac has easily been the Lakers’ best center over the last month while Tyson Chandler succumbs to 18 years of NBA experience all at once and JaVale McGee struggles to regain the form he showed before contracting pneumonia.
Walton has recognized this, and inserted Zubac into the starting lineup as a result, a place where he should have even more value whenever LeBron James returns from his groin injury.
Zubac isn’t a perfect player, but the qualities lauded above make him the perfect type of big man to pair with James: A sturdy screen-setter with an intricate understanding of space and where to roll, with the feathery touch to finish around the basket and catch any missile James fires at him, all while using verticality to get in the way around the basket on defense.
The last big man of that archetype that James played with earned $64 million from some poor team I won’t name the following summer, and Zubac has produced even better per 36 minutes than Timofey Mozgov did in either of his two seasons with James.
While it’s unlikely Zubac earns the same type of deal unless Mitch Kupchak gets antsy in Charlotte, Zubac’s potential impact on the Lakers’ fight for playoff positioning — and how undesirable the current options are behind him right now — mean that the Lakers should be careful before just using him as a throw-in for any deal that doesn’t return a massive difference-maker.
The fact that I’m even writing about this shows how far Zubac has come, and at 21 years old, he may yet have further to grow. That’s good news for him and the Lakers, no matter how long they stay together moving forward.
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.