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Young Throwback Center Takes Advantage of Opportunity as a Sophomore
Season Overview: The new version of Big Z has a long way to go to catch the franchise original. But even without that comparison, big men traditionally take longer to develop in the NBA; international big men a little bit longer.
But Zydrunas Ilguaskas didn’t get his career moving until he turned 22, the same age Ante Zizic will turn midway through his third season. He’s gotten better through the first two and has shown he belongs in this league at 21.
The question now is: where does Zizic go from here? Will he be a serviceable big man who remains part of the rotation? Or will he take a sizable leap and begin challenging for a starting spot in a crowded Cavaliers frontline.
Big Z’s season sputtered out of the gate, racking up 16 DNP-CDs before early January. But once he began getting steady minutes, the sophomore began putting up steady numbers – notching double-digit scoring in eight of his next 10 outings, including a 23-point performance against another former Adriatic League standout, Nikola Jokic, on January 19 in Denver.
Zizic started every game on that road trip and would get 23 of his 25 starts on the season after the New Year. In fact, it’s easiest to break down his numbers based on the calendar. From the opener until the end of 2018, Zizic averaged 3.9 points and 3.4 boards on 47 percent shooting. From the start of 2019 to the end of the season, he averaged 10.4 points and 6.8 boards while shooting 58 percent from the floor.
Overall, the 23rd pick of the 2016 Draft – one of two remaining pieces from the Kyrie Irving deal two offseasons ago (along with Collin Sexton) – played in 59 games this year, averaging 7.8 points on 53 percent shooting to go with 5.4 rebounds.
The Croatian big posted four double-doubles this year, posting double-figure scoring on 22 occasions.
After winning just 19 games this season, it’s obvious that the Wine & Gold are a work in progress. But the Cavs brass can feel confident about their collection of big men up front – and Z’s bright future is a big reason why.
Kevin Love is the senior member of that solid group, but just turns 31 in September. John Henson and Tristan Thompson are both 28 years old and Larry Nance Jr. doesn’t turn 27 until New Year’s Day. Zizic is the baby of the bunch – turning 22 on January 4.
Of that frontline troupe, Big Z is also the only one who plays the pure back-to-the basket center position. He and Tristan are the only two Cavaliers who didn’t attempt a three-pointer this season, and Zizic shot a strong 71 percent from the stripe.
Basically, the throwback big man has shown plenty of potential through his first two seasons. Now we’re simply wondering: What’s next?
Highlight Zizic was admittedly frustrated through the first part of the season. He’s not the type of player, like Jordan Clarkson, to come off the bench looking to deal. Like most bigs, it takes him a while to get the engine warmed up.
In fact, maybe it was the warm West Coast that warmed him up this season – doing some of his best work against the opposing Conference.
Excluding a pair of contests in Los Angeles where he saw limited minutes and the San Antonio game in which he didn’t play, Zizic notched double-figure scoring in every other game of both trips, averaging 15.4 points on 67 percent shooting to go with 7.4 boards.
Among those eight games, Zizic got three starts. He doubled-up in two of them – against Rudy Gobert in Utah and Willie Cauly-Stein in Sacramento – and dropped 23 points on 9-for-12 shooting against a viable MVP candidate in Denver.
Lowlight You don’t have to look for the numbers when searching for Ante Zizic’s lowlights. Just look for the letters – “D.N.P.”
There are certain matchups – like the aforementioned visits to L.A. – that simply exclude a standard center like Big Z. But aside from that, Zizic still had some trouble cracking the lineup early in the season. He didn’t tally double-figures until November 7 and did so just three times before Christmas.
Zizic didn’t see action in seven of the first eight games in December, but had a nice stretch over the holidays that bought him some extended minutes in mid-January. He barely looked back from there.
Odds and Ends The seven-footer from Split, Croatia doesn’t strike anyone as a high-profile jet-setter, but he lived that lifestyle for a few days over last year’s Summer League stay in Vegas.
Not long after doubling-up against Wendell Carter and the Bulls, Zizic was whisked over to the T-Mobile Arena to watch his friend and fellow countryman Stipe Miocic defend his UFC heavyweight title against Daniel Cormier. Two days later, as the Croatian national team advanced over Russia in the 2018 World Cup, Big Z was on a plane back to Europe to watch them take on France in the championship.
Unfortunately, Zizic went 0-for-Croatia that weekend. But he was a beast on the floor – averaging 20.5 points and 12.5 boards through his two appearances of Summer League.
By the Numbers .684 ... Zizic’s field goal percentage (26-of-38) over his final six outings of the season, averaging 10.8 points per with four double-doubles in the mix.
Quotable On getting support from back home, and specifically from his older brother Andrija, who had a long and fruitful European career …
"My brother, my girlfriend, my whole family all give me huge support. My brother obviously knows more about basketball than other members of my family. From him, I can always get great advice. He helps me a lot; he comes back and forth (to the States). He works out with me and everything. For me, he's a person who's ready to give me advice any time the time of day. I can call him any time. We're very well-connected and he's always had the right advice."
Looking Forward Even in today’s position-less NBA where centers like Brook Lopez and Karl-Anthony Towns can hit the three-ball like a 2-guard, there’s a place for a bruiser in the paint like Zizic.
At just 22, he has very good footwork, can finish well with both hands and is rock-solid from the free-throw stripe. He might not be the most fun player to watch, but in a blue-collar city like Cleveland, we should appreciate how efficiently he gets his job done.
This is a critical summer for Big Z. He worked hard for his opportunity last year. But he’ll have to impress another coaching staff and fit into another system when Camp opens this fall.
How will he improve in Season 3?