LOS ANGELES – Just as he felt during the past two seasons, LA Clippers center Ivica Zubac currently likes the team’s NBA title chances. But Zubac knows those fortunes largely depend on the Clippers’ health.
In the 2020-21 season, the Clippers advanced to the Western Conference finals for the first time in franchise history. They then lost to the Phoenix Suns in six games as Leonard remained sidelined after injuring his left ACL in Game 4 of the Clippers’ second-round series to Utah. In the 2021-22 season, Leonard’s season-long absence contributed to the Clippers making the NBA’s Play-In Tournament as an eighth seed, only to lose to New Orleans without George, who tested positive for COVID-19.
In the 2022-23 season, can the Clippers finally keep their trainer’s room mostly empty?
“We all know we’re a better team with Kawhi and PG healthy. That’s what we expect this year,” Zubac told NBA.com. “You can’t just wonder, ‘What if we were healthy? Would we win a championship or not? It happened, and there’s nothing we can do about it. It’s a new year. Everyone looks good. Everyone looks healthy. Hopefully, this is the year.”
Zubac spoke with NBA.com about numerous topics, including Leonard’s return, George’s leadership and his offseason contract extension. Zubac also touched on Coach Tyronn Lue nicknaming him “Baby Joker” as well as facing former Clippers teammate Patrick Beverley on Thursday against the Los Angeles Lakers (10 ET, TNT).
Editor’s note: The following 1-on-1 conversation has been condensed and edited.
NBA.com: How would you assess the Clippers heading into the regular season?
I’ve felt pretty good about the team. I came back in really good shape. I like how we have so many guys that can play. We have one of the deepest teams in the league. We have a lot of wings, a lot of guys that can guard multiple positions and a lot of talented scorers and playmakers. We got John Wall now. I think we can be really good this year.
What are your impressions of Kawhi so far?
He’s looking really good. He’s looking like Kawhi pre-injury. He’s healthy, strong and quick. He gets to his spots as always. He’s a hard worker. He looks like Kawhi.
What jumped out about how Kawhi handled last season with his recovery?
He handled it like Kawhi. He kept working hard. He was still around the guys and still on the sidelines. He’s talking to the coaches about what he sees. He’s talking to the players on what he sees and what he would like us to do to get better. He helped us a lot from the sidelines. But I’m sure he’s going to help us way more this season.
What did he help you with last season and during training camp?
Every game when he would see something, he would let me know. Some games it might have been offensively, such as punishing a switch. Some games it might have been something defensively, such as me being late on a rotation. Any time he would see something, he would let everyone know.
How have you seen Paul George emerge as a leader and build off of his play?
PG has been one of the leaders since he got here. He’s been more and more vocal. He’s a lot more comfortable now than when he first came here. He’s our leader on the floor. We follow him. He leads by example, and he became more vocal since last year. He’s been really good in that role.
What are the things he would speak up on?
You can’t say anything in particular because it was different every day. Whatever he would see, he wouldn’t be quiet. He would let us know when the practice wasn’t looking as good as it should be. When we weren’t locked in, he would let us know. He’s going to try to push us to be better. Whatever he sees, he’s going to speak up.
How would you contextualize what your offseason extension means to you and the Clippers?
I’m happy that it happened. I love it here. It looks like they appreciate me, too. I think it’s a perfect spot for me. I have great relationships here. We’re one of the best teams in the league. We’re going to have a chance to compete for a title. It’s everything a player is looking for, so I’m happy we were able to get it done.
Ty praised you for how you have grown as a rim protector and improved as a passer. He even called you a “Baby Jokic.” How do you look at that?
(laughs) It’s great. Ty has been around the team and me for a while, even before he became a head coach. He’s been seeing the progress for a while. It’s in big part thanks to him. He’s been pushing us. Last season, he asked me to do some things on the court that he hadn’t asked me to do in a while. He involved me more offensively. I think that was a big part of my progression.
What has gone into your growth as a rim protector?
It’s just about reading the play before it happens. It depends who you’re guarding as well as knowing your spots and knowing where you can be on defense. You’re preparing yourself before the game, learning the opponent’s plays and trying to see what different things they want out of that play. It’s really about reading the play before and having that timing so that you can know where they’re going to try to attack. It’s up to whoever gets higher up there, but a lot of it is about timing and knowing what they’re trying to do with their plays.
— LA Clippers (@LAClippers) September 1, 2022
How would you compare the challenges between defending Nikola Jokic and Joel Embiid?
They’re both really tough. They can do so much. Jokic is a little different because you get through a lot of stuff that you don’t usually get put through when you’re guarding a center. They’re setting picks for him, both on pin-downs and flares. He rebounds and pushes the ball. They’re going to set high step-up [screens]. It’s harder for me because they put me in a spot that I’m not usually in. But Embiid is also tough. He’s a big dude. He’s strong. When he gets the ball in the post, it’s really hard to stop him. He can also shoot from the outside. Both are tough matchups. Both are some of the best players in the league. And both are MVP candidates.
How did you handle unexpectedly being asked to guard Luka Doncic when you faced the Mavs last season?
Ty believes in me. The first game, Luka made a lot of tough shots, but Ty didn’t give up on me. He said, ‘You’re going to guard him again and you did a good job. He was making tough shots.’ Ty stuck with me. In the second game, it was much better. He’s that kind of a coach. He believes in me no matter what. He sees me every day and he knows what I can do. Even if there’s a one or two-game stretch where I might not perform as well as I can, he’s still going to believe in me.
What has the trash-talking been like with Patrick Beverley after the Lakers acquired him in the offseason?
He always is talking trash. You know how Pat is. We talk all the time. Pat is always going to be my guy. I’m glad he’s in L.A. It’s going to be fun playing them on opening night. It’s going to be fun playing them throughout the season. They got a good team. It’s fun. I’m glad for him. I think it’s going to be a good spot for him.
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