As a child who grew up wearing the jerseys of Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol and Metta World Peace, Ivica Zubac dreamed of someday translating his upbringing in Croatia to a career in the NBA.
As evidenced by his purple and gold wardrobe, Zubac was a huge Lakers fan, but the thought of not only making the NBA — but also getting to join his lifelong favorite team — was too much of a fantasy to add to that vision of the future.
Yet on Monday, donning a grey “Los Angeles Basketball” shirt, the 19-year-old stepped off the Lakers’ practice court in El Segundo as part of the budding nucleus of the Lakers.
He still can’t imagine telling his younger self about the moment two months ago when Los Angeles made him the 32nd pick of the 2016 NBA Draft.
“‘No way. What are you talking about?’ That’s what I’d say,” Zubac said. “It was always my dream to play in the NBA, especially for the Lakers because they’re the greatest franchise ever. I always was a fan of the Lakers.
“It was even hard to imagine I was going to play in the NBA, because so many guys playing in Europe are not even getting to the Euroleague and everything. But everybody wants to play in the NBA. So when draft night came, it was a dream come true.”
The teenager whose view of Los Angeles was based off “Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas” is suddenly a big part of the Lakers’ future.
Getting to this point took plenty of perseverance from Zubac, who missed much of his first two professional seasons in Europe due to surgery on his foot and a sprained MCL.
On top of that, his minutes were limited by coaches who preferred to play veterans, which makes him all the more appreciative of Luke Walton.
“I can show here what I can do,” Zubac said. “In Europe, I was limited. I didn’t have minutes and when I had minutes, it was just, ‘Do this. Do this. You gotta listen to the coach.’ Here, they want to see how you can help the team.”
Part of that work includes bodying up against third-year center Tarik Black. The 6-foot-9, 250-pounder has plenty of muscle at his disposal and has earned a reputation for using it against his fellow Lakers in practice.
Zubac gave Black strong reviews, but warned that he can hold his own with his 7-foot, 240-pound frame, saying, “Nobody can push me around.”
That confidence shines through considering the list of players that he can’t wait to face, including DeMarcus Cousins and Marc Gasol. Zubac’s potential has been likened to the latter by many, including teammates D’Angelo Russell and Anthony Brown.
For Zubac — who displayed surprisingly adept mid-range shooting, passing and mobility at Summer League — part of living up to the Gasol comparison is developing an all-around skill set that made the Spaniard a First Team All-NBA selection in 2015.
“Here (in the NBA) we do a lot of different things,” Zubac said. “In Europe, you just do one thing that you do a lot of times until you get better. Here you work on every part of your game.”
But he also keeps a level view of how early into his development that he is, as shown by his prospective rating in the “NBA 2K” video game series.
While other rookies may have delusions of breaking into the 90s, Zubac will be happy to start off at 70 before working his way up the digital ranks through his real-life improvement.
For now, he is waiting anxiously to figure out where the folks at 2K Sports have him rated. He foresees that playing as himself in the video game will be one of the many unbelievable moments that he has experienced through basketball over the past few years.
These include his trip to the 2015 FIBA U19 World Championship, where he led Croatia to a silver medal, coming just short of a United States team led by projected 2017 lottery picks Harry Giles, Josh Jackson and Jayson Tatum.
He returned home to his family and friends celebrating his success with fireworks, which they did again after he was drafted.
Zubac estimates that 300 people poured out of his house that day to greet him, and he imagines it will be just as crazy if he can help the senior national team in the same way.
With him, Dragan Bender and Ante Zizic set to soon join a squad that already features Mario Hezonja, Dario Saric and the Rio Olympics’ leading scorer, Bojan Bogdanovic, Zubac envisions a future where Croatia has a chance to compete with the world’s best teams, including the United States.
Much of his pride for representing his country stems from his appreciation for those who fought for its independence, which was declared in 1991 — just six years before he was born.
His opportunity to play for his homeland will come in time, but for now he is happy to scrimmage alongside the others in purple and gold.
He called Monday’s session “really hard,” but that doesn’t stop him from enjoying the opportunity to live out his dream, saying simply, “I really like to do this every day.”