Ivica Zubac was casually hanging onto the rim with his tiptoes still on the floor as I approached him. Only a few human beings on the planet can do this, and he was happy to humor the delighted photographer who asked him to hang up there just a bit longer.
Zubac is immensely likeable – a mix of precociousness, honesty, and introspection – but the narrative around him has changed. Just one year ago he was the darling of Lakers fans, a teenager from half a world away who went from dreaming about rocking purple forum blue and gold to having fans scream “Zuuuu!!!” from the heights of Staples Center. His post game quotes were golden and his radio interviews were even better, as he spoke of trying to navigate not only the transition to the NBA, but life in Los Angeles. He was equal parts novelty and potential. Balki Bartokomous with a sky hook, and we ate it up.
A lot can change in one Summer League.
In an environment where quality second year players are supposed to thrive, Zubac struggled to keep up with the increased tempo that Lonzo Ball cultivated.
“We played at a quicker pace, and I was not ready for that. I’ve been preparing for that pace all summer after Summer League. I think I’m really ready.”
Adjusting to a new, frenetic style was as difficult as would be expected for the 7’1”, 260lb big man, but previously reliable elements of his game also abandoned him. After a season where he demonstrated excellent hands, he fumbled the ball or was stripped of it altogether with alarming frequency. Gone was his feathery touch around the rim, replaced by blown assists and wayward putbacks. Instead of extending his range to the 3-point line, he was badly front-rimming 16-footers. As the player with the second most NBA minutes on the Summer League roster he was supposed to be one of its leaders, but ended up being left behind.
The Andrew Bogut signing has further muddied the waters at the Center position, and the very pursuit of him may be indicative of the Lakers’ opinion of Zubac’s readiness. Bogut, a favorite of Luke Walton’s, is about as different from Zubac as he could possibly be while still sharing a similar physical profile. He’s a brilliant distributor on Elbow Series and Delays, where he’s responsible for reading and reacting to his teammates coming off of screens. More importantly, he’s a dependable rim protector on a team that surrendered the highest percentage at the basket in the NBA.
With no first round pick in 2018 and Free Agency plans that will require maximum salary cap flexibility, there’s an implied immediacy to his season for all of the young players who haven’t been anointed as the next Magic Johnson or James Worthy. For Zubac, that pits him against a savvy veteran who can wax nostalgic with the Head Coach while gazing at their shared championship ring. Zubac acknowledged that the number of big men in camp was notable, but is ready for the challenge.
“I just have to do the stuff that I did last season, and I think I’m gonna be good. I prepared for Training Camp all summer, and now I’m ready to grab my minutes.
While that may be a bit of an uphill battle at this point, Zubac is strong in areas where Bogut is very weak at this point in his career, particularly as a scorer. In 20 games after the All-Star break last season, Zubac averaged 17.8 points per 36 minutes with a 56.0 TS%, both exceptional numbers for someone who had just celebrated his 20th birthday. Zubac is an excellent screen setter who has a good feel for rolling or popping into space, and does well to give the ball handler an open window to deliver the pass.
Zubac would do well to model his game after presumptive starter, Brook Lopez. After years operating from 18 feet and in, Lopez extended his range beyond the 3-point line and made himself more viable in the modern NBA. Zubac missed each of his 3 attempts from deep in 2016-17, but made 57.1% of his attempts between 16 feet and the 3-point line, an astounding mark in a league where the average player makes 38-40% of those shots. This portends well for his ability to stretch the floor in the coming years.
But his offense isn’t going to be what keeps him off of the floor. Last season, he looked a step slow while defending ball screens, which was a function of both his inexperience and the bit of baby fat that he was carrying. While there was nothing that he could do about his inexperience, he knew that he needed to get in better shape.
“It’s been a long summer. We got Gunnar (Peterson) for a Strength Coach and he helped us a lot. I’ve been working every day. I improved my body a lot and my defense on the court.”
I asked him to be more specific on where his focus has been on the defensive end.
“Mostly my pick & roll defense and switching out onto guards. If I have to switch sometimes I can stay in front of the guy. I can help the team on the defensive end this season.”
The very nature of Media Day is optimism in the form of platitudes about a player’s physique and the thousand jumpers that they took per day, but Zubac does look noticeably slimmer. While it remains to be seen if he can indeed stay in front of NBA caliber guards, he’s more physically equipped to do so than he was last season.
The rapid loss of optimism surrounding a 20-year old kid with his size and touch probably says more about us as fans than it does about him. Bogut is very unlikely to play 82 games, and the $1.54M Team Option that the Lakers hold on Zubac for the 2018-19 season incentivizes the team to want him to outplay Bogut. Having a good player on a great contract increases their flexibility going into a Free Agency period that may determine the franchise’s direction for the next half decade.
His margin for error is slimmer than his new waistline, but the Lakers would be wise to not give up on Ivica Zubac quite yet.