HOUSTON — “Do you have 20 and 10 in you?”
As Ivica Zubac wrapped up his courtroom warm-ups and strolled towards the locker room, he smiled as Rob Pelinka requested him a playful query from a courtside seat.
“Of course,” he stated.
Simply not that night time.
That trade between the Lakers’ 21-year-old Croatian 7-footer and the staff’s common supervisor was again on Dec. 27, when Zubac was recent off two double-doubles in his earlier three video games. He was on the peak of a scorching streak, and on the peak of his confidence as a starter instead of an ailing JaVale McGee.
It was one other 12 video games earlier than Zubac lastly obliged his phrases, scoring a career-high 26 factors and including 12 rebounds towards Oklahoma Metropolis’s Steven Adams, extensively thought-about one of many hardest facilities within the league.
“He’s really been big for us all year,” level guard Lonzo Ball stated. “Every time he’s gotten minutes, he’s producing, and today, we had him on the floor. Didn’t look like he was tired, being that big. So I was proud of him.”
The youngest middle on the roster – and lots of of his teammates – believes he has the potential for 20 and 10 on any given night time. The harder impediment in his third season is when he can get a chance to present it.
Of the Lakers’ many younger mercurial skills, nobody has been squeezed within the rotation as a lot as Zubac, who has spent a lot of the yr because the unenviable third middle off the bench in a league that’s going more and more small. There are nights, resembling Thursday’s recreation towards the Thunder, that show he’s able to enjoying vital minutes towards good competitors. There are nights, corresponding to that forgettable one in Sacramento (six factors, 5 rebounds, 20 minutes) when he seems to be like a legal responsibility.
And there are much more nights, just like the 21 video games he hasn’t performed on this season, when nobody has gotten to see him in any respect. For Zubac, a lot of this season has been an train in endurance. However there have been loads of moments when he has confirmed he can play.
“I never doubted in me,” he stated in an interview final month. “I always knew what I can do. I always had the same skill-set. It’s not just like I started playing good then. Like I became a good NBA player over the night. I’ve been doing this in practice and last year.”
That account is affirmed by gamers and coaches alike, who say they’ve seen Zubac compete at a better degree in follow than in earlier seasons with the staff. He has a feathery contact across the rim (60.5 % capturing this season), nice arms, an growing understanding of how to place himself on screens and rolls, and his wingspan provides him a pure shot-blocking capability (2.6 blocks per 100 possessions).
A few of his greatest video games this season have come towards the hardest opponents: He had 16 factors and 11 rebounds towards New Orleans and the likes of Anthony Davis, and he additionally had a double-double towards the Golden State Warriors, turning right into a pick-and-roll menace alongside Rajon Rondo within the last quarter after LeBron James was injured.
However Zubac has been dogged by points largely outdoors his management because the season started. He returned from his nationwide group expertise with Croatia with an sickness that set him again throughout coaching camp. As he fought to return to enjoying situation, the Lakers shored up their depth at middle by including veteran Tyson Chandler, who instantly confirmed his worth within the rotation by making key final-minute performs in two of his first three video games, all wins.
Even the accidents to James and Rondo have served to maintain Zubac off the ground: Coach Luke Walton has cited a necessity to hold veteran management within the recreation, and with largely younger gamers manning the guard and wing roles, meaning he’s extra prepared to lean towards Chandler and McGee.
However having these gamers round has served Zubac, as properly. One of many gamers pushing Zubac the toughest in the course of the early a part of the season, when he was a DNP for 20 of the primary 27 video games, was McGee.
“I’ve been on him since the beginning of the season when everyone doubted him, saying he wasn’t able to play, he’s not ready,” McGee stated as he was making his comeback from pneumonia. “I’ve been in his ear constantly, like, ‘You’re a beast,’ and I know what he can do. I can just see it in him.”
That sort of help has stored up during the last stretch, because the Lakers have awkwardly tried to shoehorn Zubac into enjoying time between McGee and Chandler. On one event, Chandler (who has acknowledged he’s enjoying by way of some discomfort) sat out for relaxation whereas Zubac performed reserve to McGee. A quick experiment to play McGee and Zubac collectively in a “twin towers” lineup in Minnesota went disastrously awry, with Walton admitting later that it had not labored.
But the Lakers supported him, in public and in personal. That was expressed at the start of the season within the entrance workplace, once they elected to maintain him over Thomas Bryant (who has since carved out his personal area of interest for the Washington Wizards). Zubac was one of the crucial embraced gamers strolling off the courtroom following the win in Oklahoma, and teammates spoke glowingly of the efficiency – together with one of many different facilities whom he ended up eclipsing.
“He has a great attitude, you want to see him do so well,” Chandler stated. “I love seeing him succeed out there, and I’m gonna keep being in his ear. I’m gonna keep encouraging him because I really believe he has a bright future in this league.”
Zubac believes it, too. He by no means stopped. However it’s reassuring that from Pelinka on down, the Lakers are prepared to flip to him – even when the alternatives come a bit of extra sparingly than he would like.
“I never doubted me,” he stated. “Sometimes I would think maybe it’s not gonna happen here. Maybe it’s gonna happen somewhere else. But I always knew I gotta stay in shape, because it’s the NBA, and you never know.”