February 23, 2018, 1:37 pm
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Coming into the 2016 NBA Draft, the Lakers couldn’t really mess up the No. 2 overall pick, as there were two consensus top prospects and then a whole different tier of promising players. And they didn’t, as they made the right decision and took Brandon Ingram, possibly the most NBA-ready player in the draft. As for their second round pick at No. 32, they took Ivica Zubac whom NBA teams didn’t really have much of a chance to watch the year leading to the draft. An injury at the beginning of the season and the fact that he had to change teams in mid-season due to financial issues lead to him only playing 20 games in the 2015-2016 season. What’s really amazing though is that his stock remained steady almost all season long, mainly because of what he had shown in the past. After an up and down season where he struggled for playing time, some teams felt it would be in his best interest to wait a year before entering his name in the draft but Zubac wanted to play in the NBA right away. He had a very strong finish to the year with a number of big games and put himself in the radar due to his commanding physical presence and an above average offensive touch. The Lakers saw an opportunity to draft a top-20 prospect with the No. 32 pick and selected the Croatian teenager.
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Zubac came through the youth ranks of a historic club in Croatia, Cibona Zagreb and made the roster of the men’s team in 2015, becoming a part of a group of young prospects (including Ante Zizic) after the departure of Dario Saric. He played in Croatia’s top-tier level A1 league and in the Adriatic League his first year and also saw action in the FIBA Europe Cup his second year but he was not nearly as ready from a physical standpoint as his countryman Ante Zizic (the No. 23 of the same draft which we examined a few weeks back). His upside though was considered far greater as he showed the better physical and offensive potential while he has the makings of a two way player that can alter and block shots as well as play in the post and hit mid range shots facing up.
A fragile body frame not up to NBA standards yet
Listed at 7’1″ with a reported 7’4″ wingspan, Zubac has tremendous size, as well as good mobility but he came into his rookie season with the worst weight/body fat ratio than any Lakers player (263.8 lbs/18.4 percent). He’s not necessarily a soaring, high-flying act, but he’s not earthbound, either and the expectation has always been that he should be able to carry weight going forward. After a surprising rookie season in LA where he adjusted to playing at a faster tempo, Zubac finished the year on another injury note, sitting out the final seven games due to a high ankle sprain. The health concerns have always been there as he already had two major injuries (a broken foot in 2014 and an injured knee in 2015 before getting drafted) while his playing time was always in the low 20’s raising serious questions about his durability and longevity. While players in Europe are more physical due to the style of play, NBA players are quicker and more athletic than their European counterparts and there was never a better proof other than his presence at the summer league this year. Even though he was expected to dominate in Las Vegas, he struggled mightily, and looked out of sync on a team that was playing at a very fast pace. It was also the reason that the Lakers signed Andrew Bogut to begin the season as his conditioning and strength were not at the expected level.
Zubac put a lot of work during the summer in order to run faster, to move quicker and to jump higher, as he needs to increase his speed and leaping ability in order to switch onto guards who will quickly step back and try to get a shot off. Watching him play you can tell he is still familiarizing himself with his body, as he can’t really control it yet and finds himself committing unnecessary fouls due to the lack of agility. Look at him awkwardly extending his hips into Ricky Rubio for a screen and eventually getting called for the offensive foul.
After coming into training camp at 282 pounds in his rookie season he is now listed at 240, close to his target goal that will enable him to catch up with a faster tempo.
Charismatic offensive talent
Zubac combines a deceptive fluidity with solid fundamentals, backing down opponents and displaying an innate ability to alter shots. What really makes him stand out of course is his natural tendency to score on anyone, since through time, he has developed a good back to the basket game with a nice touch around the rim. He has great hands and a great feel for the game that translates to a strong post game with a variety of moves in the middle. Look at him going to work against Nikola Jokic and using his solid footwork to score with the hook shot.
Zubac has dominated in the G-League in both seasons putting some impressive performances and developing all the right habits that will help him take his game to the next level. He makes his free throws at an elite level (82.9 and 84.6 percent) and he has cut down on his fouls (down to 2 from 3.4 per game this year) while blocking 2.3 shots per contest.
What’s even more impressive is how he also looks comfortable catching the ball in pick-and-roll action and making plays in traffic. Look at how he effortlessly throws a tough pass to Jordan Clarkson who cuts to the rim for the easy dunk.
While Zubac can bring instant offense, in order to become offensively elite he needs to expand his range and become a threat from anywhere in the floor and not just around the paint. He has a simple yet effective stroke while he also gets his shot off real quickly. While he hit a few threes in the G-League last year, he hasn’t taken any with the Lakers because Luke Walton wants him in the middle of the floor, where he can play off pure instinct. The Lakers play at a fast pace and lack consistent three point shooting this year averaging just 9.2 3-pointers per game and the number would have been even worse if it weren’t for Brook Lopez and his ability to spread the floor.
Defensive game still a work in progress
Lakers love Zubac’s size and wingspan especially because he is relatively mobile for his size but most importantly, the center has showed a promise as a rim protector in the G-League as well as at the NBA level. But while he can use his size to his advantage, and has shown flashes of being capable of altering shots directly at the rim, he has yet to prove he can excel in team defensive schemes committing 3.9 fouls per 36 minutes while often getting called for the defensive 3 second violation.
His defense, especially on pick-and-roll situations, needs a ton of work as quick guards will either blow past him or are able to create enough separation to hit shots against him. Here’s Damian Lillard attacking him early on the clock with Zubac unable to keep up with his speed and committing a cheap foul.
He’s also a solid rebounder who boxes out efficiently and has a knack for creating second hand opportunities out of possessions that seem lost. As expected, Lakers will rarely run a play for him but he’s able to manufacture touches by being active around the rim and outhustling opponents. Look at him once again beating Nikola Jokic for the putback after a bad shot by Jordan Clarkson.
The truth of the matter is that Zubac isn’t yet a truly great defensive presence but he has the size, the right attitude and a natural instinct for altering shots around the basket and he can absolutely develop into a solid building block for a he team.
How long until he becomes a starter?
Rim protection is something that the Lakers need much more of, being one of the worst defensive teams in the league but the team plays at a very fast pace this season, which may not be Zubac’s strong suit. Brook Lopez isn’t the most mobile center either but his ability to stretch the floor helps his fit, while earlier in the season, Andrew Bogut knew exactly how to carve out a role on a fast-paced team after years with the Warriors.
It may be true that the NBA is no longer a league dominated by giants, but there’s still a place for really tall players, as long as magnitude is accompanied by talent and skill and Zubac is surely one of them. With Larry Nance Jr. in Cleveland and Channing Frye out for the foreseeable future due to an appendectomy I’d expect the Lakers to give Zubac more minutes for the rest of the year. And it will be crucial for his future in the league to finish out the season strong and prove to everyone that his injury woes are behind and that he can be a consistent force in the middle as next year could find him as the starter in Hollywood.
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Stats are courtesy of NBA.com and Basketball-Reference.com and are accurate as of February 23.