Ivica Zubac Facing Uncertain Second Season With The Lakers
Video: Ivica Zubac Hits Sky Hook In Lakers’ Practice

The Los Angeles Lakers surprised everyone this week with the unexpected signing of Andrew Bogut. It was previously believed that the team’s training camp roster was set and that there would be competition among several young players for the 15th and final spot on the regular season squad. Now it appears that spot belongs to Bogut assuming he shows he’s healthy.

Bogut was the number one selection in the 2005 NBA draft. He has enjoyed a good career but has rarely been able to stay injury free for very long. He joined the Cleveland Cavaliers at the trade deadline last season and was expected to play a key role in their pursuit of another championship, but in his very first game he broke his leg and missed the rest of the year.

Signing Bogut to a one-year deal for the veteran’s minimum is consistent with the Lakers plan to have maximum flexibility going into next summer when they will try to transform the franchise by signing at least two superstar free agents. But it also raises a number of questions about this year’s roster which now features four centers.

In particular, what does this mean for Ivica Zubac?

Zubac was a happy surprise for the Lakers last season in his rookie year. When he was drafted in the second round out of Croatia, he was unknown to fans and the media. His popularity soared in Summer League with his surprising skillset and his humble, youthful enthusiasm off the court.

Zubac played sparingly the first half of the season but when he finally got his chance this past January he made the most of it. On the year he appeared in 38 games with the Lakers, averaging 7.5 points and 4.2 rebounds in 16 minutes per game while shooting 52.9 percent from the field.

Ivica Zubac, Lakers
Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

Zubac had the first double-double of his career on January 19 against the Denver Nuggets when he scored 11 points, grabbed 13 rebounds, and blocked three shots. His best game was also against the Nuggets, on March 13, when he scored 25 points and had 11 rebounds. Unfortunately, he sprained his ankle on March 31 and missed the rest of the season.

Off the strength of his rookie campaign, many fans expected Zubac to battle Timofey Movgov this fall for the starting center position.

The first blow to Zubac came when the Lakers traded Mozgov and D’Angelo Russell for Brook Lopez and a first round draft pick. Zubac had no chance of wrestling the starting role away from Lopez, who is a much better offensive weapon than Mozgov while also being underrated defensively.

Brook Lopez Lakers
Dann Gilbuena – Lakers Nation

Still, things weren’t so bad for Zubac. He looked like a lock to get solid minutes as the center for the second unit alongside his buddy Larry Nance Jr. and Jordan Clarkson.

Then came news of the Bogut signing, and suddenly everything is looking murky for Zubac, not just for the upcoming season but perhaps for his future with the Lakers.

GM Rob Pelinka pointed to the Lakers struggles with rim protection as a major place where Bogut could help the team. Luke Walton also noted his championship experience as being a great benefit to the Lakers young roster.

Bogut was a key member of the Golden State Warriors for four years, winning one championship before he was dealt last summer to clear room for the Warriors to sign Kevin Durant. For his career, he has averaged 10 points and 8.9 rebounds per game.

Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

Now there is the recent report that Lopez has been suffering from back soreness this summer and may miss part of the preseason. This is worrisome, because Lopez will be counted on to play a prominent role this season.

There was no inkling that he was having any difficulty, and he has been one of the most visible players at the team’s training facility this offseason where he has been working hard on the court and weight room while getting to know his new teammates.

Thus, there is speculation that the Lakers are worried enough about Lopez’s condition that they felt it was important to bring in a strong, veteran substitute in case Lopez misses much time. There is also a possibility that the Lakers are losing confidence in Zubac.

He has been present most of the summer at the team’s training facility so the coaches and front office have had a good opportunity to observe him. Most worrisome, however, was his Summer League performance.

Ivica Zubac, Lakers
Stephen R. Sylvanie-USA TODAY Sports

After a strong showing last summer, Zubac was expected to dominate in Las Begas. However he struggled mightily, and looked out of sync on a team that was playing at a very fast pace.

Zubac has a polished low-post game, although he needs to continue to show he can make mid- range and long range shots. The biggest worry is on defense where he lacks the quickness to switch out on pick-and-rolls, and struggles at times with rim protection due to slow off-ball recognition.

The Lakers want to play at a very fast pace this season, which may not be Zubac’ strong suit. Lopez and Bogut aren’t fleet-footed centers either, but Lopez’s ability to stretch the floor helps his fit, while Bogut knows exactly how to carve out a role on a fast-paced team after years in Golden State.

Bogut is on a partially guaranteed contract, but if he can stay healthy, it is hard to imagine that he will not play regularly. He and Luke Walton know each other from their time together with the Warriors, and no doubt that was instrumental in Bogut’s decision where to sign.

He reportedly turned down opportunities with three very good teams, the Cavaliers, Celtics, and Timberwolves. The logical assumption is that he knows he will get more playing time with the Lakers.

This 2017-18 Lakers’ season will be dedicated to facilitating the growth of the team’s young players, and to do that they will need minutes. Just a few months ago some were anointing Zubac the Lakers center of the future, and he was one of the team’s most popular players. Now, his future may be a lot less certain, including how much playing time he will actually get this year.

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