During the recently concluded Las Vegas Summer League, rookie big man Ivica Zubac surpassed all expectations.
The 19-year-old Croatian was the Los Angeles Lakers’ 32nd overall draft pick in June. However, he played like a borderline lottery selection this summer, averaging 10.6 points, 7.2 rebounds and 2.6 blocks, starting every game and displaying a surprising comfort level and poise.
It wasn’t all peaches and cream—Zubac was the unfortunate recipient of a murderous dunk on his head, courtesy of Jerami Grant. Welcome to the NBA, tall teenager.
Regardless of rites of passage that will live in online infamy forever, Zubac is a genuine draft steal. But he’ll have to do a lot more than excel in Las Vegas to earn a regular rotation spot under new Lakers coach Luke Walton.
After all, L.A. already has a traditional starting center in Timofey Mozgov, the hulking 7’1” Russian who signed a four-year, $64 million deal this summer. Walton can also use Larry Nance Jr. and Tarik Black as undersized 5s in small-ball lineups.
So where does that leave the 7’1” Zubac? The answer may lie in a level of offensive potential and versatility that L.A. has lacked in recent years.
A young talent on a young team, Zubac appears to be a terrific fit with the Lakers. A lifelong fan of the Purple and Gold, the neophyte expressed true joy on draft night.
“This is my dream come true,” Zubac said, per Joey Ramirez of the Lakers' official website. “I cannot believe this is happening because the Lakers were my No. 1 team since I started playing basketball. Kobe [Bryant] was my favorite player, so I’m so happy right now.”
Just like that, a fan favorite was born.
The young center didn’t get much playing time overseas last season with injuries and contract issues. As a result, he wasn't expected to do much when he arrived in Los Angeles just days before the start of summer league.
But Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak was impressed by what he saw in Las Vegas, also per Ramirez.
“He really only had one practice under his belt, and expectations were very low,” Kupchak said. “But once again, he’s a young player that’s gonna need time to develop as well. But I think he’s a little bit ahead of what we thought.”
Teammate Nance Jr. went a fair amount further than his typically circumspect GM, praising Zubac’s physicality and rim protection, per a Lakers Nation video, adding: “That’s a guy I just love playing alongside.”
As Lakers beat reporter Mike Trudell tweeted, the feeling was mutual:
The young Croatian may have even surprised himself with his quick acclimation and progress, per the Los Angeles Daily News’ Mark Medina.
“I knew I would let everybody see what I have and prove myself why they picked me,” Zubac said. “But I didn’t know I would play like this.”
Playing "like this" includes converting a high 64.7 percent of his field-goal attempts, gobbling up passes with soft hands, blocking six shots in a game against the Utah Jazz and displaying a smooth jumper out to about 20 feet from the basket. He also sets effective screens, has excellent mobility and dives well to the basket.
Interestingly, these are also strengths for the smaller and more experienced Black, who will compete with Zubac for minutes.
Granted, summer league is a long ways from regular-season NBA action. But it couldn’t have been a better introduction for a kid who just months ago was watching the Lakers play on late-night television from thousands of miles away.
The concerns for Zubac aren’t huge, given the initial low expectations for a relatively unknown second-round draft pick. However, fans should also temper whatever delight they may have experienced after watching a handful of summer league games.
After all, facing the true monsters of the paint during the regular season is a far cry from playing exhibition games against fellow rookies and fringe hopefuls. Additionally, Zubac won’t have a starting role as he did in Vegas.
Bleacher Report’s Jonathan Wasserman wrote an in-depth scouting profile on Zubac in the lead-up to the draft. At the time, the international big man was rising quickly through mock drafts, suddenly becoming “a must-scout prospect for teams picking during the mid-to-late first round.”
But while Wasserman praised Zubac’s blend of size and mobility, he also raised some red flags:
Though a fluid north-south runner, he's not as smooth moving side to side. Zubac doesn't look like an asset in pick-and-roll coverage, and for a rim protector, he doesn't block many shots.
Offensively, he's made some impressive passes, but he's only totaled seven assists in 15 games. You won't see him face up and put the ball on the floor, either, which makes him a more predictable cover. His jumper also lacks range and isn't a threat to stretch the floor.
That said, Zubac's teammate Anthony Brown had his own take on any potential Gasol comparisons, as tweeted by Serena Winters of Lakers Nation:
Zubac also showed good rim protection instincts in Las Vegas and demonstrated a nice touch on his mid-range jumper, as well as the potential to shoot from even farther out.
Per Medina, Zubac felt a shooting confidence that stemmed from a new coaching situation.
“I was in the system where Coach tells who’s going to shoot now and he calls the plays,” Zubac said. “Players don’t have freedom. Here, you have freedom and you can show what you have.”
Lakers assistant Jesse Mermuys took the head coach reins for the summer league roster and encouraged Zubac to extend his range, per the same Medina article.
“We’re letting it fly, man,” Mermuys said. “We want to empower our guys. We want them to feel confident and let it fly, especially in summer league. If that thing comes to [Zubac], he has to be ready and line it up. It looks good.”
Mermuys’ shot-happy enthusiasm neatly encapsulates both the potential and challenges for Zubac’s future. The league is evolving and immense size doesn’t have the same cache that it once did. Spreading the floor and knocking down shots from a respectable distance is of paramount importance.
Ultimately, the prognosis for Zubac’s future in the NBA looks good. He has a great attitude, is delighted to be where he is and is endearing himself to teammates and staff. And despite his size, he can get up and down the floor quickly.
Zubac will spend his rookie season getting used to the rigors of the NBA, developing his all-around game, competing for backup minutes in a crowded frontcourt and most likely, spending some time with the Lakers’ D-League affiliate, the Los Angeles D-Fenders.
But if he starts knocking down shots anywhere in the vicinity of the perimeter, watch out. Zubac’s role could quickly evolve on a young team with a new and open-minded coaching staff.
Complete Per-Game 2016-17 Stat Predictions:
- Minutes: 11.0
- Points: 4.5
- Rebounds: 3.0
- Assists: 0.5
- Field-goal percentage: .420
- Three-point percentage: .290
- Blocks: 0.5