Ivica Zubac was a pleasant surprise in his rookie season. Drafted in the second round of the 2017 NBA Draft, Zubac showed out when given the opportunity, showcasing a skillful ability on the offensive end that made many Lakers fans excited about his potential.
Zubac’s sophomore season could not have been any more different.
It’s not so much that the big man’s stats dropped off. Normalizing his stats by averaging them per 36 minutes, one can see little differences in the points, rebounds, shooting percentages and block numbers.
But fans, and the Lakers organization, expected marked improvements from Zubac and they never came. It came after a disastrous Las Vegas Summer League where the center looked out of shape and could not stay on the floor with a fast-paced squad led by Lonzo Ball and Kyle Kuzma.
The poor showing in July bled into the season where Zubac found it difficult to find consistent playing time. He appeared in only 43 contests with the Lakers, averaging fewer than ten minutes per game. In that time, Zubac had the same issues: lack of footspeed, agility and overall athleticism leading to disappointing minutes. Zu averaged a measly 3.7 points and 2.9 rebounds per game (interpolated to 14 and 11 per 36 minutes) and shot only 50 percent from the floor despite doing most of his work around the rim.
Zubac is still a young prospect who dominates the G-League (21.7 points, 9.1 rebounds per game and 61 percent from the field in 14 games for the South Bay Lakers) giving credence to the hope that he can develop into something more.
But it’s difficult to see a pathway to consistent success. The 21-year-old is a glimpse into the past of the NBA, a slow-footed seven-footer who can only drop back on defense and who does not make quick enough decisions offensively.
Zubac’s success will first and foremost come with transforming his body and losing weight. To his credit, the big man spoke about needing to do just that in his exit interview. Doing that will at least buy him more significant playing time with the ability to run in transition with Ball. Zubac was actually stellar in transition last season but did so in very limited possessions, hitting all seven of his attempted shots in such situations, per Synergy.
Zu is still a very skilled big but the strengths we have come to expect from him went away in his second season. Synergy ranks Zubac as poor in both post-ups and pick-and-roll situations and it’s easy to see why. Zu’s decision-making is still incredibly slow and he’s unable to make the necessary passes to get out of crowded situations in the paint. When he loaded up to shoot, Zubac lacked the explosion to create space and get easy looks: he made only 3-of-19 attempts from post-ups and 9-of-19 attempts as the PNR roll man.
The Lakers don’t need Zubac to be an efficient post-up option. But his ability as the roll man will be the key to his future in LA. Zu will be playing with ball-handlers (Ball, Brandon Ingram, Alex Caruso, etc…) who look to drop off pocket passes to their big man when the defense keys in on them. Zubac must be able to make defenses pay by finishing the play or finding cutters and shooters in 4-on-3 situations.
Zubac finished out the season on a fairly positive note. In his last eight appearances, the big man averaged a very nice 6.9 points and 5.9 rebounds per game while shooting 50 percent from the field. The Lakers outscored opponents by a combined 34 points when he was on the floor. Zu also showed better defensive chops this season, rating as an average or better defender in all play types except for isolations according to Synergy. He also had a positive defensive box plus-minus of 0.5.
There is still some hope that Zubac can put everything together. More improvements defensively, especially with his footwork, could ensure that he’s not a liability on that end. Offensively, learning the game and working on matching the speed of both the offense and the defense could allow him to use his visible skills to get actual production.
Nevertheless, Zubac’s future in Los Angeles, and in the NBA, is under question beyond this upcoming season. Even his place on the roster next year is not a certainty as his contract is non-guaranteed if he is waived by June 30. Without marked improvements to his body and his game, there will not be a place for his game in a league that is leaving his archetype behind.