The History and Future of Ivica Zubac
The first time most NBA fans heard the name "Ivica Zubac" was on June 23, 2016, when the Lakers selected the 7'1" center with the 32nd pick in the Draft.
I remember thinking, "Who?" … and then quickly … "Can he play?"
The latter has revealed a simple answer: "Yup!"
He's got great hands, fundamentally sound post moves, sets explosive screens, rolls hard, and has good defensive instincts at the rim. Zubac has plenty of room to grow in areas like screen/roll defense and with his physique, but he's already made strides.
Zubac's agent told him prior to the Draft that he would have been a Top 10 pick had he waited a year to come out, which isn't hard to buy in hindsight. He has two younger brothers (17 and 15) that also hoop; we'll pump the breaks on any hopeful/fun comparisons to a certain set of Spanish brothers for a few years, but Marc Gasol is both the player that Zubac aims to be like and the closest comparison that the Lakers' scouting staff identified when watching him.
As for who he is? Consider where he's from.
Zubac grew up in a small town in Bosnia and Herzegovina called Citluk that is just east of the Croatian border. He has duel citizenship, but identifies 100 percent as a Croatian.
"I live in the part of Bosnia-Herzegovina where we are the only Croatians, and we are the proudest in the world," said Zubac. "Croatia means everything to us."
In 1991, six years before he was born, Croatia and Slovenia moved for independence against Serbian aggression, starting a civil war in the former Yugoslavia. The bulk of the fighting ended when NATO bombed the Bosnian Serbs in 1995. Many of Zubac's family members fought in the war, defending their land and culture.
The International Center for Transitional Justice says approximately 140,000 people were killed in what was Europe's deadliest conflict since World War II, and truly hard feelings remain.
"People are still feeling like it's war," said Zubac. "Croatians hate Serbians and Serbians hate Croatians. They don't want to talk to each other."
But basketball, as Zubac has seen and lived for himself, can serve as a bridge. He played professionally in Serbia last year, and before arriving, was scared if the Serbian players and people would accept a Croatian.
Instead, he was very pleasantly surprised that teammates accepted him "like their own brother", and the Serbian people followed suit. Today's NBA is full of players from Zu's part of the world, three from Bosnia and Herzegovina, five from Croatia, three from Serbia and three from Slovenia.
"We all feel like we've known each other for 10 years," said Zubac. "Basketball unites people."
When the Lakers played Denver in January, Zubac guarded both a Bosnian (Jusuf Nurkic, 22) and a Serb (Nikola Jokic, 21). Far away from their home countries, with families who may have fought against each other in a war just 20-odd years ago, the three feel like brothers. Thanks mostly to an orange ball.
It's within that culture of basketball that Zubac lives, and he couldn't be happier about it.
Below is the full transcription of the rest of our conversation, which details growing up with basketball in Citluk, how he went from a small Croatian club to realizing his wildest NBA dreams and more:
Mike Trudell: What's your first memory of basketball?
Ivica Zubac: I first started playing when we moved from my first house to a house that had a hoop out in front. Every day, I was in front of the basket shooting balls. The basket was regular height, and I was about 5 years old. We were saying to my dad to please make it smaller, but he said no, because ‘One day you're going to get it.' He wanted us to shoot on a bigger basket. We were so small and weak that we were barely reaching it at first.
MT: When did you first start to dream about the NBA coming from such a small town?
Zubac: There aren't many people in my town, but we all love sports. Every kid is playing something: either football (soccer); basketball; tennis; handball or volleyball. And my cousin played in the NBA.
MT: Ahhh, so you had a blueprint, a reason to believe…
Zubac: Yes, Zoran Planinic*. He was drafted in 2003 by the Nets and played there for three seasons before returning to the Euroleague. When he got drafted, everybody wanted to be like him since he was from the same place. Everybody knew you could make it! There were a lot of kids playing basketball, and I started when I was 7. I was the youngest one when I really started practicing together with older kids up to age 15. I was just running up and down and nobody would pass it to me. So I said, ‘I don't want to do this anymore' and I stopped playing basketball after a year.
*Zubac's second cousin on his father's side.
MT: Well, clearly, you picked it back up…
Zubac: (smiles) Three years later I started playing again just for fun. It's not like in America where they know you're going to be good and you practice hard and everything. We were just having fun, practicing shooting and drills. But after those two years we got a new coach (Ivo Bundic), and he started figuring things out for us. He put me at center and started working a lot with me because I had more talent than other people, and I started early on fundamentals. I was doing a lot of back-to-the-basket work. That's where I got my hook with my left and right hand. Also layups, setting screens, footwork.
Coach Bundic is now practicing with my little brother Mario*, who is even bigger than I was at the same age. I think he can be really good. The coach said he thinks he thinks he's better than me.
*Mario (14) is the youngest of three brothers, with Antonio (17) in the middle, along with sister Maria Andejela (15). Parents Ivan (6'6") and Dijana (6'2") weren't (professional) athletes, but Ivan played amateur basketball.
MT: Watch out, Marc and Pau! What about your middle brother?
Zubac: (At first) Antonio wasn't really into basketball as much – he's into girls and cars and everything. But he's talented too. He's about 6'8", a power forward. He's faster and more athletic than me. I think he's starting to get more serious now, though, once I started playing for the Lakers. I think he's going to be a good player.
MT: So, when did you start getting good?
Zubac: After I started working with that coach, I started really playing good, and I was scoring 30 or 40 points per game in our league in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Brotnjo* is the name of the club, which has basketball teams and also soccer teams.
*Centuries before the wars in former Yugoslavia (1991-1999) that many of Zubac's family members fought in, the Ottoman Turks gained control over his hometown, changing the name from Brotnjo (Croatian) to Citluk (Turkish).
MT: OK, so you're dominating your local league. Then what.
Zubac: Then I got invited to play in a tournament by Cibona, a Crotian League club that won the entire Euro League two times with Drazen Petrovic. I was only 13. So we went to a tournament in Hungary, and I didn't do much. I scored like two points in five games, and I was thinking, "Oh man, I didn't do good, they aren't going to take me." But then they called me for another tournament in the middle of the season and I played better. And then for another tournament, and I played better again. Then they asked me to move there and start high school there in Croatia.
MT: That's quite a life change for a 14-year-old. How did you feel about it?
Zubac: When I started to play basketball, the gym in Citluk was always full with 1,000 people, and my only dream was to play in front of those people with Brotjo for the senior team. I was just a player on the youth team. So when Cibona called me, I couldn't believe it for a few days. I was out with my friends, and I got home, and my mom told me they wanted me to go a tournament with them! I thought she was joking... Then people from Cibona called (again) and it was just crazy. I was going to be moving to Zagreb (the capital of Croatia).
MT: It couldn't have been easy leaving your family before your first year of high school, no?
Zubac: That was tough. To see my mom, brothers and sister crying was very hard. But when I arrived, I was with six or seven other kids my age, and we were living in a really big apartment that the team owned. Those guys started calling me Zublocka. We all had our own rooms, two minutes away from the arena where we practiced. That was fun. I was never bored. We were really good friends and are still in contact. Sometimes I would just miss my friends and family, who were about 600 kilometers away*.
*That's 372 miles, just about the distance from Los Angeles to San Francisco, roughly a five-and-a-half hour drive.
MT: How was managing school while you had such a focus on hoops?
Zubac: I changed to four different high schools in my first year of high school, until the last school, where I stayed for the full time. At first, I was in a really tough school, and with two practices a day for Cibona, it was hard to keep up with everything. So I switched to the second school, and that one was even tougher. The third school was the easiest school ever. I finished with all fives, which in the U.S. would be an A, the best grade. I didn't want to go to that one because it was too easy. So I moved to Economic High School, I stayed all four years. It's different from America. If you want to be a doctor, you go to that high school. If you want to be a barber or a journalist or a chef, there are schools for all that.
MT: Wait, how do you know about American high schools, and what our grades are here?
Zubac: Watching lots of American movies and TV shows!
MT: Of course. Well, your English is terrific.
Zubac: You start learning English in fifth grade. I as 12. But even before then I was listening to American music. My neighbor was a really big hip-hop fan, so he taught me everything around hip-hop. That's where I get all the 2pac stuff from.* I listened to Biggy and Eminem and 50 Cent and everything. That helped me a lot with my (NBA) teammates … When I moved to Zagreb, I started watching a lot of American TV shows and movies. That helped me a lot, learning the language, because I‘d try to understand without using the Croatian subtitles. Watching NBA games also helped me a lot. I would search for live streams on Google and watch any NBA games I wanted, and I'd watch in English.
*The huge fan of the G.O.A.T. rapper has been called a ton of different 2pac inspired nicknames by teammates like Larry Nance, Jr., including Zupac and Zu of Amerikaz Most Wanted. Editor's entry: Zupacalypse Now.
MT: So you were up late! I know East Coast night games start at 1:00 a.m. at the earliest in Croatia, and as late as 4:30 a.m. on the West Coast, which is when you've said your family and friends watch you play for the Lakers.
Zubac: Yes, it was tough staying up. I'd always be late for class cause I'd be up until 6:30 a.m. for a Lakers game watching Kobe and everybody. So then you just don't sleep, we'd just watch the games and then drag to school. We would get in trouble.
MT: When did you become such a huge Lakers fan?
Zubac: The first game I really watched closely was Game 7 of the 2010 Finals against Boston when I was 12. That's what got me hooked on the NBA. I started reading everything I could about the NBA and the Lakers. So I bought this Croatian magazine called "Basketball" about the NBA, and I had stacks and stacks of them. It was great. I was collecting them. I loved Kobe … everybody was a Kobe fan. I also liked Lamar Odom a lot. I liked Andrew Bynum's game, and Pau Gasol, of course. Metta. It's crazy to play with Metta! The first thing I told him last summer was that ‘I had your jersey when you were still Ron Artest!' I told him how crazy it was for me. I was so happy! He was like, ‘Why the hell did you buy my jersey!' But after practice we were scrimmaging, and I was playing well in those games, and he said, ‘Where did you learn those hooks!' I said, ‘Europe.'
MT: OK, to jump back to Cibona, how did you develop as a player?
Zubac: I didn't start well. For my first two years, nobody considered me a talent or anything. I think I was 6'1" when I got there (186 centimeters). Then when I was 15, I grew about eight inches. And I started playing better, but an injury happened. I had a stress fracture in the navicular bone in my left foot, like Joel Embiid had, but he had two surgeries.
MT: Growing that much so fast must have put a lot of stress on your feet…
Zubac: Right. So I missed a year, but I was slowly coming back when I was 17, and Cibona loaned me to a Croatian First Division team, Velika Gorica. I started playing really well against professionals, averaging 16 or 17 points per game. Then they brought me back to Cibona to the first team. I didn't play much, but I played good when I played. So, that summer, I was supposed to be the backup center for the Croatian National Team* at the Under 19 World Championships. But the expected starter got injured, and I started and played really good. I think I was the second or third scorer in the championships. We made it all the way to the final, and barely lost to the USA in overtime. We had a free throw for the win and the guy missed so we went to OT and lost.
*He was 16 when the Croatian national team first called him up, and he remembers the first time his name, Zubac, was on the back of the jersey. He took a picture and immediately sent it to his parents, gleefully, another dream attained.
MT: You beat Egypt and Iran after losing to the USA by 20+ in the group stage, and then took care of China, Canada and Turkey en route to a rematch with the Americans.
Zubac: Right. I scored down the stretch of the final, and we were down by one, and got fouled (close to the buzzer). My teammate hit the first free throw, but missed the second for the win. The USA team had guys that are going to be in this year's draft like Harry Giles, Jayson Tatum, Josh Jackson and some other really good players.
MT: So, that was your arrival moment. That's when NBA agents started hitting you up.
Zubac: After that, everybody knew. I realized, wow I (really) can go to the NBA one day. So next season, Cibona said I was going to play a lot, but I sprained my MCL and was out for two months. I didn't play any minutes when I got back, and I asked my agent to change the team. So I went to play for Mega Leks in the Serbian League, and three of us on that team got drafted. Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot was drafted by Philly (24th overall), and (Rade) Zagorac got drafted by Memphis (35th overall) and will come over next season). Every practice and game there were a bunch of NBA scouts.
MT: What was your first exposure to the Lakers front office?
Zubac: Mitch (Kupchak) came to watch me. It was crazy because I was not allowed to play a few games for Mega Leks, since I changed teams, so I only had shootaround with them. I was shooting around and I saw Mitch entering the gym. I was like, ‘Is this possible? Who did they come to watch?' My agent told me they came to watch me with the Lakers international scout (Antonio Maceiras) and one other scout. They watched shootaround … all they saw was me putting up shots. That was just one month or two before the draft, and I played 10 or 15 games after that.
MT: So all of this has happened real, real quickly, to where you're noticing your name all over the mock drafts, suddenly…
Zubac: I saw that I was projected between 15-25 in most mock drafts. A lot of teams were interested in me: Atlanta; Detroit; Memphis; Boston; and Toronto. It was a lot of teams. It was shocking to me because it really did happen fast. Nobody had considered me a big talent before that. So I always dreamed of playing in the NBA, and I was always telling people I'm going to play in the NBA, but nobody believed me. They'd make fun of me when I said that. But after the U19's, it was realistic.
MT: Why was it so clear to you that you wanted to enter the Draft?
Zubac: A lot of scouts told me that if I stayed one more year in Europe, I'd be in the top 10, for sure. But I told my agent my dream was to play in the NBA, in the best league against the best players. To try to prove myself. And I didn't want to waste a year. A lot of things could happen. I could get injured, who knows? So I said I'm going to the NBA right now, as soon as they draft me.
MT: You speak with such conviction on this … so you made all of these decisions yourself? How involved were your parents, your family?
Zubac: Yes, I make all my decisions myself. My parents always told me ‘Whatever you decide we are going to support you 100 percent. We aren't going to try to make you decide anything.' I always knew what I wanted. I wanted to go to the NBA, straight. It wasn't a debate. When I told my agent I wanted to leave Cibona, he told me I had a few Euro League offers. I said, ‘I don't care.' Because if I signed for a Euroleague team, they would want me to stay there for three years (with a big buyout). So I said I wanted to go to a smaller team, play a few games and get drafted.
MT: Seems pretty smart now!
Zubac: (laughs) In the beginning of the season people were trying to be smart saying I should have stayed in Europe and everything. But I always knew it'd be a good decision because I'd develop as a player more here. And now I see even more that the decision was right.
MT: We'll connect towards the end of this season to get into more details about your actual experience in the NBA. But give me a taste of what it's been like for you so far?
Zubac: You know, it's crazy. I still, like … after the game at Madison Square Garden I came to my room, got in bed and was thinking to myself, ‘Is this real life? I'm playing for the Lakers, I just helped my team to win in Madison Square Garden against the Knicks! Is this happening?' Still, sometimes I can't believe it.
Sometimes if I'm not having a good practice, I look around (the Lakers facility) and see the banners and retired jerseys and I just remember, ‘I'm playing for the Lakers! Things are good!' That's how I get better. In the Draft, when my agent told me teams want to pick you, but they want to stash you in Europe for one year … but the Lakers want to bring you over this season, I was just hoping nobody else would select me. So I told my agent from Europe and from here to make calls all night long making sure nobody is going to select me. They were saying to teams, ‘He's not going to come over ever if you select him.'
MT: Just like Kobe!
Zubac: I knew what I wanted. Around the 20th pick, my agent told me the Lakers would select me if nobody else did, and they would bring me over right away. I was just hoping nobody else selected me.
MT: Well, here you are.
Zubac: And I feel great. I feel like I'm five times better as a player than I was this summer. I feel so good. I've improved a lot of things. It's crazy. Everything is going so fast.