April 12, 2019, 3:17 pm
Another successful season here at Hoop Ball is in the books and I’d like to once again thank YOU, all the readers and followers, for the continuous support and the words of encouragement you have been proving us in the last couple years, helping us become a bigger and better fantasy community.
Ante Zizic, a forgotten part of the Cavs trade with the Celtics back in the summer of 2017 is going to be our focus in this week’s International Spotlight.
The 22-year-old big man is short of a late bloomer as he played his first professional game just before turning 16 years old. A legit seven-footer with impressive measurements, (a 7’3″ wingspan and a 9’3″ standing reach), he played for David Blatt and Darussafaka Dogus in the EuroLeague where he averaged 9.0 points and 6.7 rebounds and was named the 2015-16 Adriatic Basketball Association’s top prospect, averaging 12.7 points, 7.2 rebounds, and 1.2 blocks per game. As I examined before, the ABA is a league where many current and former NBA stars like Ivica Zubac, Dario Saric, Nikola Pekovic, Nikola Jokic and Jusuf Nurkic played in before making the successful transition to the NBA.
A Historically Bad Defense
While the continued development and improvement the team has seen from youngsters like Sexton, Osman and Zizic has been encouraging, the 2018-19 Cavs will go down as the worst defense in NBA history (since 1973-74 when defensive metrics were established). Basketball-Reference shows that the Cavs have the worst defensive rating in NBA history followed by the 2018-19 Suns. And in case you think we are simply throwing shade to Cleveland, it’s quite embarrassing how five of the worst 15 defenses of all-time are actually from the 2018-2019 season (Cavs, Suns, Hawks, Wizards and Knicks).
Assistant coach Mike Longabardi has been in charge of the Cavs defense since 2016 and the team has actually performed great at times, being ranked 4th overall in 2015-16, while the Cavs struggled mighty with injuries this year and forced them to deploy lineups with guys constantly playing out of position.
Zizic has seen his playing time rapidly increase in his sophomore year from 6.7 to 18.3 minutes, starting in 25 games throughout the season. Advanced stats, which I like to use on players with limited playing time and experience overall, don’t tell a good story about the Croatian big. Both his Offensive (-1.7 compared to -1.3 last year) and Defensive (-1.4 compared to -1.2 last year) Box Plus/Minus was slightly worse in his second season, leaving Zizic with an overall Box Plus/Minus of -3.1 on the season, meaning that he makes his team 3.1 points worse than the league average per 100 possessions when he is on the floor. There are possessions where Zizic has to defend powerful old school centers like Andre Drummond and he fails miserably. Look at this play where he is being bullied deep into the post and ends up surrendering the goal-foul on a brutal defensive possession.
On the other hand, when looking at his on-off numbers, advanced stats show Zizic as a positive – with him on the floor the Cavs allow a very bad 112.8 points per 100 possessions but without him the opposing team’s offensive rating goes up to an absurd 120.4 points per 100 possessions. The Cavs, therefore, are 9.3 points per 100 possessions better with him on the court which a very good sign considering the number of minutes he has played throughout the season. Zizic was able to hold Marc Gasol to just two points on 1-of-6 shooting back in March but watching the game closely you can tell that all his shots were simply unfortunate misses rather than a direct result of the defense.
Historically Bad Shot-Blockers, Too
The Cavs also ranked dead last in shots blocked with just 2.4 per game, with the Pistons following at a far more respectable of 4.0 per game. What’s even worse though is how that average is the lowest in the history of NBA, with blocks being registered only at the start of the 1973-74 season.
Zizic is clearly part of that equation as he has already struggled to protect the rim while getting adjusted to NBA game speed and pace. He is not a particularly explosive jumper nor much of an athlete and he will need to drastically improve his lateral quickness in order to keep up with the level of athleticism in the NBA. Zizic is listed as 6’11” but he simply doesn’t block shots, averaging a mere 0.4 in both his seasons so far and he often tends to over-jump and fall for the pump fake by attacking guards. Look at him failing to properly read the drive and commit the unnecessary foul against Klay Thompson who simply finds himself in no man’s land but gets bailed out.
Zizic is slow-footed for an NBA player, he doesn’t have a mobile body and has trouble defending the pick-and-roll. He doesn’t let guards simply blow past him but he’s also not quick enough to cover for mistakes by his teammates, and especially rookie guard Collin Sexton. Kemba Walker abused the Cavs’ pick-and-roll defense in all their matchups this year, constantly attacking Zizic and Sexton and exploiting their slow reads on many possessions.
The good part with most seven-footers is that even if they don’t possess any length or bounce, they can still protect the rim and Zizic is able to at least provide occasional help defense. Here is a rare possession where the big man finds himself at the right place in the paint and uses his size to protect the rim with a clean block against Nemanja Bjelica.
Zizic is a relentless rebounder on both ends of the floor and has shown tremendous progress in this part of his game this season. He has the physical tools to dominate in the paint and constantly attacks the glass with his big body but what’s really impressive is that he understands positioning and will chip in on the offensive end with easy tip-ins and put-back dunks. Playing at the highest level in EuroLeague with Darussafaka, he was first in offensive rebounds (3.2 per game), sixth in total rebounds (6.8 per game) and 10th in field goal percentage (61 percent) in just 22 minutes of action and it’s good to see these skills translate nicely at the highest level as well.
He generally does a great job boxing out and using his large frame to block opponents from getting to the ball. His rebounding numbers have been impressive this season and there is plenty of room for improvement as the kid boxes out not only for himself, but for others as well. Look at him putting a body on Serge Ibaka who is lurking around the paint for the second chance opportunity. Kevin Love had a disappointing season, playing in just 22 games, but he still managed to average 10.9 rebounds per game mainly due to the ability of Larry Nance and Ante Zizic to effectively box out their opponents.
Still, the Croatian big struggles against quicker centers who are able to outmaneuver him on the post. Here’s John Collins capitalizing on that opportunity for an easy offensive rebound.
Non-Stop Motor, Energy and Hustle
One thing you have to give to Zizic is how he won’t stop grinding and coming after you. Former Cavs coach David Blatt tells a great story about going to practice with a young Ante Zizic who had to hold his ground against 6’10” 250 pound Sofoklis Schortsanitis, a former Clippers draft pick also known as “Baby Shaq”. Zizic got beat big time but he didn’t quit and stood there taking the hits all the way until the practice was over. This is the kind of energy and intensity that he brings to the table and why many scouts fell in love with him. You can always teach the fundamentals but you cannot teach the kind of mental toughness and resilience Zizic has consistently shown.
Strong Low-Post Game
One area where Zizic, throughout his short career, has shown that he can be a dominant force is the low post. The Croatian big is clearly not the most polished offensive player but he has established himself as a consistent interior offensive presence, as he is decisive enough, understands mismatches and knows what he wants to do as soon as he gets the ball deep into the paint.
He has the range and will hit the mid-range shot but he is still shy with it and will only attempt it when he is wide-open. His go-to move after receiving the ball around the rim is to move closer to the basket and unleash a smooth up-and-under that is very difficult to defend, even for the best rim protectors. Here is him practicing some solid footwork against a clueless Hassan Whiteside.
Zizic has shown a good touch as a rolling scorer, being able to finish with both hands and absorbing contact, further validating his case as an efficient low-post scorer. He shoots very well from the free throw line for a big man his size while he has been able to increase his attempts to 2.2 per game this year. Zizic was paired with Jordan Clarkson to begin the season but it has been nice to see him develop solid chemistry with rookie point guard Collin Sexton as the season progressed.
He is still simply a traditional center that is more effective in the paint but don’t be surprised if he’s able to develop a consistent 3-point shot in a few years since his stroke is exceptionally fluid.
Versatility to Define His Ceiling
The Cavs quickly turned their season into a rebuilding year with a focus on the development of rookie Collin Sexton and second-year forward Cedi Osman, as the coaching staff put the ball in their hands and enabled both players to make tremendous strides in their games. The team had to lean on Zizic as well and the coaching staff has really been happy with where the young big is in his development. With the team quickly shifting to a rebuilding approach thanks to all sorts of injuries, Zizic had to play considerable minutes, which is a great step forward after he struggled during the 2017 Summer League with the Celtics and looked like he might not have the athleticism to hang in the NBA.
That being said, his game is somewhat limited due to his lack of versatility and speed and it remains to be seen whether he can somehow fit the mold of a modern center in a pick-and-roll heavy NBA, where teams need centers who can catch and finish quickly with either hand.
General manager Koby Altman has done a tremendous job acquiring future assets via trades of veteran pieces and Zizic projects as a good bench scoring presence for the near future but his fantasy game will remain limited as long as he doesn’t accumulate defensive stats and remains a one-dimensional big.
Thank you for reading this article and please make sure you check us back again next week and throughout the offseason as more player breakdowns are coming up. Stay up to date on all the breaking news and rumors posted on our website and on our Twitter account @HoopBallFantasy.
Stats are courtesy of NBA.com and Basketball-Reference.com and are accurate as of April 12th.
April 18, 2019, 1:13 amRicky Rubio - G - Utah Jazz
Ricky Rubio put up 17 points with four rebounds, nine assists and four steals in a loss to the Rockets in Game 2 on Wednesday.
He shot 7-of-17 from the field and had the unfortunate matchup against James Harden for much of this game. Harden hit him with a crossover that sent Rubio to the floor, but he missed the shot. The Jazz have been getting good performances from Rubio and Derrick Favors, but the inconsistent play from the remainder of their roster has left them with a two-game series deficit. The Jazz are heading back to Utah for Game 3 as they will try to steal their first game of the series.
April 18, 2019, 1:06 amDonovan Mitchell - G - Utah Jazz
Donovan Mitchell had another poor shooting night as he went 5-of-18 from the field on his way to 11 points in a Game 2 blowout loss to the Rockets on Wednesday.
Mitchell shot just 1-of-8 from 3-point territory and 0-of-2 from the stripe. He also had five fouls and four turnovers while playing a team-high 37 minutes. He did add six assists and two steals, but this was a disappointing performance from the second-year rising star. Eric Gordon has been outshining him, but Mitchell has a chance to rectify things as the Jazz head home for Game 3.
April 18, 2019, 1:00 amDerrick Favors - F/C - Utah Jazz
Derrick Favors played well in his 22 minutes of action in a Game 2 loss to the Rockets on Wednesday, with 14 points, 12 rebounds and three blocks.
Although Favors is putting up good numbers in such limited minutes, you should not expect to see him go above 25 minutes at all in this series. He shot 7-of-11 from the field and missed both of his attempts from deep. Also, the Rockets play a lot of small ball as PJ Tucker is their power forward, so Favors is often at a defensive disadvantage when on the court.
April 18, 2019, 12:56 amRudy Gobert - C - Utah Jazz
Rudy Gobert did not have a great showing in Wednesday's Game 2 loss to the Rockets as he managed just 11 points and 12 rebounds on 3-of-6 shooting.
He made five of his seven attempts from the stripe and added one assist and two steals to the stat sheet. He did not record a block in this one which is rare to see from Gobert as he averaged 2.3 blocks per game on the season. Clint Capela has been defending Gobert well, which is making things a lot tougher on the Jazz to score and rebound the ball. Gobert will look to bounce back as the Jazz head home for Game 3.
April 18, 2019, 12:47 amRoyce O'Neale - F - Utah Jazz
Royce O'Neale played well on Wednesday in a Game 2 blowout loss to the Rockets as he had 17 points on 7-of-10 shooting with three triples and four assists.
O'Neale stepped up as Joe Ingles managed just seven points on 3-of-8 shooting with five steals. He saw 27 minutes of action in this one after seeing just 15 minutes in Game 1. He has guarded James Harden on numerous possessions thus far and it seems as though Harden goes at him every chance he gets. This may be the best game we see from O'Neale all series, but he has given the Jazz some solid run off the bench thus far.
April 18, 2019, 12:37 amJames Harden - G - Houston Rockets
James Harden dominated the Jazz in Game 2 on Wednesday as he triple-doubled with 32 points, 13 rebounds and 10 assists.
Aside from his eight turnovers, there was not much to complain about Harden’s performance. Rather, there were elements of Harden’s showing that deserve high praise such as his six triples, one block and toughness throughout the entire game. He would not back down from Ricky Rubio and actually crossed him up in the first half. The Beard is continuing his MVP-like season into the playoffs, which is no surprise given how truly great his 2018-19 campaign was.
April 18, 2019, 12:31 amChris Paul - G - Houston Rockets
Chris Paul put up 17 points on 5-of-11 shooting with two steals and two blocks in a blowout win over the Jazz on Wednesday.
He made just one of his six 3-point attempts and turned the ball over six times. However, he did add four rebounds and three assists to the box score as well. James Harden is clearly the dominating force for the Rockets, but Paul's stability will be crucial for the team to continue their playoff success.
April 18, 2019, 12:25 amEric Gordon - G - Houston Rockets
Eric Gordon outplayed Donovan Mitchell once again in Game 2 as the Rockets beat the Jazz 118-98 on Wednesday.
Gordon scored 16 points on an efficient 6-of-11 shooting and 3-of-6 shooting from long-range. He also contributed one rebound, two steals and one block to the stat sheet. Gordon is tasked with guarding Mitchell, which is the toughest defensive assignment on the Rockets and he is thriving in that role. He has held him to 30 points on 37 shots in the series thus far. This series could potentially end in four games if Gordon continues to play at this high of a level.
April 18, 2019, 12:17 amPJ Tucker - F - Houston Rockets
PJ Tucker drilled four triples on his way to 16 points in a blowout win over the Jazz in Game 2 on Wednesday.
He added two steals and four boards while converting five of his eight shots from the field. The Rockets have confidence in Tucker to fire from deep and he proved them right as he drilled four of his seven attempts from 3-point territory. Surrounding James Harden with 3-and-D wing players has been their formula for success and Tucker fits that mold perfectly. When Tucker is hitting his shots, the Rockets are likely to dominate the way they did tonight.
April 18, 2019, 12:09 amClint Capela - C - Houston Rockets
Clint Capela did not have to do much in the Rockets’ Game 2 blowout win over the Jazz on Wednesday as he had just seven points and 10 rebounds with three blocks.
He shot 3-of-4 from the field and added one assist and one steal to the box score. Although the numbers were down in this one, he did what he had to do in his 29 minutes of action as he kept Rudy Gobert in check as well. Capela is an important cog in the Rockets’ formula for success, so even when he is not scoring as much he is still impacting the game in other ways.