Ivica Zubac loves playing basketball and being a member of the Los Angeles Lakers. His joy for everything purple and gold was endearing over the summer, when he impressed fans, teammates, and the media alike with his youthful enthusiasm, and more importantly, with some unexpected skills on the court. However, as summer gave way to fall and then to winter, Zubac disappeared.
Even after a solid win against the Los Angeles Clippers, who were forced to play without Blake Griffin and Chris Paul, the Lakers are losers of 12 of their last 14 games and are tied with the lowly Brooklyn Nets and Philadelphia 76ers for most losses in the NBA. They are losing to teams they beat earlier in the season, teams that are not very good. Their defense has been so bad that on their recent road trip it seemed like every night they made poor shooters like Elfrid Payton and Justise Winslow look like Stephen Curry.
Some attribute the team’s sagging fortunes to the fact that after the first month of the season, opponents had ample footage of how the Lakers were winning and adjusted accordingly. That is partially true, but the better explanation is that the Lakers, with little experience and modest talent, cannot overcome the injuries that have wreaked havoc with their rotation and robbed them of their depth and confidence.
The biggest issue right now is the team’s truly awful defense. Timofey Mozgov is an improvement on offense, but defensively he is about the same as last year’s center Roy Hibbert. They share the same weaknesses: They are very slow, can’t jump a lick, and despite their considerable size, they simply have no talent for protecting the rim. Mozgov is averaging less than one blocked shot per game, and opponents are feasting in the paint against the Lakers as they did last year against Hibbert.
While it is painful to admit, unless the recent victory over the Clippers sparks a sudden resurgence, at the moment one would have a hard time distinguishing this year’s Lakers team from last season’s squad which won a franchise-low 17 games.
Given their plight, it may be time to give Zubac a chance to play. Fellow rookie Brandon Ingram is playing as many minutes as anyone on the team, even though he has been utterly incapable of making an outside shot all year. While Ingram’s length makes it difficult for opponents to shoot over him, that should not be confused with playing good defense. Right now, Ingram is struggling to keep anyone on the wing from getting into the paint.
Which raises the question: If Zubac had played the same number of minutes as Ingram this year, who’s to say he wouldn’t be playing at least as well as Ingram at this stage. Some continue to wonder if Anthony Brown would have played as well as D’Angelo Russell last season had he been given comparable minutes.
With all due respect to pundits who extoll the virtues of “small ball,” in the NBA size still counts. There are many teams with big, talented centers and power forwards like Hassan Whiteside of the Miami Heat, Rudy Gobert of the Utah Jazz, Kristaps Porzingis of the New York Knicks, and Brooks Lopez of the Nets, to name a few who have hurt the Lakers recently. Small ball may work for the Golden State Warriors and the Cleveland Cavaliers because both teams have three superstars who are unstoppable, and in the case of the Warriors, some would say they have four superstars. The Lakers don’t have any, so playing small ball every night regardless of the opponent is not the answer.
Mozgov is a legitimate NBA center, but his skills are more suited to a backup role. His contributions to the Lakers are modest and mostly on the offensive end, and despite his large contract, he does not represent the future. Given the current state of the team’s struggles, how much worse could it be to give Zubac a consistent 20 minutes a night? If they start now, wouldn’t it pay dividends by the end of the season?
Zubac was the 32nd pick in the draft last summer. He is 19 years old and stands 7’1” in height and weighs 265 pounds, so in contrast to Ingram, he is no 90-pound weakling. Zubac has genuine, heartfelt affection for the Lakers franchise and expresses himself with the wonder of a five-year-old boy talking about Santa Claus. No one will ever forget his famous line, in the midst of a hotly contested summer league game, when he leaned over to Larry Nance, Jr. and uttered the famous words, “I love Lakers.”
But there is much more to Zubac than a winning personality. He has size and skill. He has already shown he can shoot well from mid-range, and he demonstrated with the Los Angeles D-Fenders that he can make three-pointers as well. Around the rim, he has a variety of shots and is ready to unveil the sky hook he has been practicing. He started and played a few minutes against Dwight Howard in a game earlier this season when Mozgov was out — he made the team’s first two baskets of the game.
Defense is another story, as it is for most young players. If Mozgov is ineffective defensively, Nance is out indefinitely, and with small ball not always the answer, it may be time soon to give Zubac consistent minutes to let him learn and improve. He is not going step in and turn the Lakers’ fortunes around. He is going to struggle just as Ingram has struggled this season and D’Angelo Russell struggled last year. But he is also going to learn, and isn’t that what this season is about for the Lakers?
As Luke Walton has said many times, this season is all about growth, not wins, so shouldn’t Zubac be in the mix? He has potential to be the featured center on an improved Lakers team of the future, so isn’t now the time to start testing him and seeing how much he can grow the rest of the season? Or are they just going to waste his entire year, which has pretty much been the case so far.
Let’s hope the Lakers wise up and don’t repeat their mistakes of last season.