When the Lakers young core is discussed, four names are typically mentioned: Brandon Ingram, Lonzo Ball, Kyle Kuzma and Josh Hart.
But if you’d just watched the Lakers play for the last week and change, you may have noticed a 7-foot-1 behemoth with soft hands and quicker-than-expected feet patrolling the paint on both ends.
Ivica Zubac was drafted No. 32 overall in 2016, 30 spots after Ingram. Like Ingram and Ball, he’s just 21. As a rookie, Zubac had some nice moments, including a 25-point, 11-rebound gem against Denver in March. His sophomore year was less notable, and he entered the 2018 offseason determined to improve his body, and thus, his game.
After working out hard with Lakers Director of Strength and Endurance Training Gunnar Peterson … and then playing very well for the Croatian National Team in FIBA Qualifiers over the summer in games that Lakers GM Rob Pelinka made sure to stay up very late, or get up very early, to watch … Zubac thought he was poised for a breakout season.
Then on the flight back from Croatia to Los Angeles, Zubac got really sick just three days before training camp, which really set him back. Luke Walton used him for a total of just seven minutes in October, and 40 minutes in November, with vets JaVale McGee and Tyson Chandler playing well and splitting minutes at center. But when McGee fell ill recently, Walton decided to start Zubac, and over a three-game span, was heavily rewarded.
Against New Orleans, Memphis and Golden State, Zubac averaged 17.7 points on 25 of 32 FG’s (78.1%), plus 8.3 rebounds and 2.7 blocks in 32 minutes per game. He played only 20 minutes in Thursday’s loss at Sacramento, and wasn’t getting the benefit of the whistle at the rim before finishing with six points and five boards.
“He’s been really good for us,” said Walton before L.A.’s Thursday’s game. “We’re going to need him to continue to be really good for us. He’s done a nice job of staying ready, working really hard and taking advantage of the opportunity when it came to him. He’s very young, he’s got a long way to go still, but his body is already starting to slowly change from a young man to a grown man, and as you go in this league, especially bigs, the speed of the game and how it’s played today, it takes longer sometimes. But for only being 21 years old, he’s made a lot of really nice progress.”
We sat down with Zubac to detail his offseason training, his preseason illness, his breakout stretch as a starter and how important and helpful his vets have been to his progress. Below is a transcription of our conversation:
MT: Did you add anything to your offseason routine last summer after your second season didn’t go exactly as you’d hoped for?
Zubac: I did work out harder especially in the weight room with Gunnar, I did work on my conditioning and my explosiveness and my lateral movement and stuff like that more. The first summer, I worked a lot on just lifting, but the second summer, we focused more on the running, jumping, moving and everything. I think that made a difference.
MT: When you weren’t at the Lakers facility over the summer, you went to Europe to play for your National Team; how did you feel that went?
Zubac: Really good. I was in the starting five, and we won two and lost two, but I played pretty good.
MT: Were you a better player, or a different player, after your summer?
Zubac: I wouldn’t say different. I just felt like everything I did before, I can do better now. Rob (Pelinka) Magic were watching the games for my National Team, and Rob was calling me after those games saying how much better I look, how much more athletic. Throughout the whole summer, the coaches and front office were saying that I was looking great, when we played some pickup games. But when I came back from my National Team for the second time, I got sick right before training camp, and that changed everything.
MT: Tell us more about that.
Zubac: So, I was on the plane from Croatia to L.A. – 14 hours – and I was sleeping for most of the flight, and by the time we were landing, I started feeling cold and that I was getting sick. I landed three days before training camp, and I had a fever for four or five days that wouldn’t go down. My throat was bad, I was coughing so bad, waking up in the middle of the night and it wouldn’t stop. I somehow got the fever down for the first day of training camp, but my energy was terrible. I couldn’t do anything. I don’t know how I got through the first couple of days. But I couldn’t show anything that I worked on this summer, and that’s the part of why I think I was not in the rotation since Day 1.
MT: How long did it take you to get back to where you were before you got sick?
Zubac: It took me three or four weeks. I started doing much better in practices, and in some practices I would dominate, and that’s when I was like, ‘OK this is it, this is how I felt all summer.’
MT: And that was around the time Tyson Chandler arrived, right?
Zubac: That was the time when J3 (Johnathan Williams) was playing backup minutes, and right before we got Chandler, I got to play in the Portland game*, and we won and I played pretty good. After that game, we got Chandler and I was back on the bench. But that’s when I was starting to feel really good.
*Zubac played 20 minutes, and hit 4 of 5 FG’s for nine points with eight rebounds in a 114-110 win.
MT: You’ve said multiple times that Chandler and JaVale McGee have been really good vets to you…
Zubac: Yes, for sure. JaVale, at the beginning of the season when I was not playing and we were not doing good, told me ‘I know you’re not happy with being on the bench, but you gotta work, you gotta stay ready because we’re gonna need you.’ JaVale was on me every day, and even when his conditioning was not really good at the beginning of the season, he would call me and be like, ‘Let’s run together after practice.’ We did a bunch of stuff for our conditioning with Gunnar, and then Tyson got here, and we have the same agent* and he was like, ‘Tyson is an amazing guy, he is going to help you a lot.’ And since Day 1, Tyson has been sitting next to me on the plane, and after every game whether I played or not, we talk about the game, go over everything that happened. We think similar, and some stuff I didn’t usually see before, now I can see. When I don’t see it, he explains it to me, and now I’m seeing some different stuff that I didn’t see before.
MT: What’s an example of that?
Zubac: Angles of setting screens. I always thought, you only have to hit a guy, but he explained to me about angles, so that helps. Then a lot of stuff on defense. Positioning of the guards on screens, or where I should be on pick and rolls. Who can I help off, and stuff like that.
MT: Have you found a renewed sense of confidence with your recent play as a starter?
Zubac: I’m feeling really confident right now. Especially because I had those kind of games before, but I was never consistent. I would have one good game, then a few bad games. So after the I figured after the first game (against New Orleans), I was like, ‘I gotta forget about that game.’ I gotta focus on the next one. My only goal is to be consistent to help the team, and that’s the only way. People are going to forget about that game two days after that. If I play bad that next game, nobody is going to care what I did (earlier). I gotta be consistent. I knew with guys like (Rajon) Rondo and LeBron (James), I have to go straight up every time. That’s what I worked on a lot this summer with Mad Dog (asst. coach Mark Madsen), about planting on dunks and how should I go around defenders when I’m dunking. That really helped me, and that was my mindset from the first start this season. I knew I had to go hard, because last year I was trying to shoot floaters and a hook shot, and didn’t have much success with it, so I knew (getting all the way to the rim) was going to help my game.
MT: That’s a good point; last year, you were often getting in no man’s land there in the middle of the paint where you weren’t close enough to dunk. How have you changed that around to consistently getting all the way to the rim?
Zubac: I’m more athletic than the year before. I’m physically much stronger. More explosive. That helps me with contact. When I jump and when I bump into someone, I’m the guy who bumps the guy, not the guy who’s being bumped. So that helps a lot when you’re finishing, and with your confidence. But it’s not that I’m doing something else, I just worked on footwork with Mad Dog, so when I get the ball in pick and roll, what’s the first step? How should I plant it?
MT: You’ve always been a guy who lifts his knees when he dunks, which I think of as a Shaq move. Maybe we’ve just been seeing you dunk more often lately and it’s standing out …
Zubac: Yeah I’ve been doing that for a long time. I knew a couple of big guys in Croatia that were dunking, but they’d leave their legs straight and be hanging, and it didn’t look cool at all. I’m a tall guy. If I dunk like that, it doesn’t look cool because I’m a couple of inches from the ground. When I lift my knees up it looks cooler, and Shaq did it, so that’s another plus.
MT: Some young bigs from your area of Europe like Nikola Jokic and Jusuf Nurkic have been getting more praise of late, and deservedly so. Is there a part of you that’s thinking, ‘Don’t forget about me’?
Zubac: They deserve it, and to be honest, I didn’t do much this season to be in that same conversation. Even though I know I can be, I didn’t do anything to be there. I guarded them when I was younger back home and I know I can play against them … and I’ve done good against all of them. It’s just a matter of opportunity. I know if I’m playing, I’m going to be in that conversation. And if I’m not and they are, it’s fair for them to be in that conversation, and not me. I knew since my first year when I had some success, and in my second year not really, and I know a lot of people gave up on me. But I always knew what I can do, and no one can see what happens in a practice and I was always really good in practices. And I knew if I can do it in practice, when I get my chance in a game I’m gonna do it again. I think I can be consistent and do this on a day-to-day basis.