Until the NBA Draft last month, no one had ever heard of Ivica Zubac. When his name was called by the commissioner, fans were still celebrating the team’s selection of Brandon Ingram with the second pick in the first round. The few people who were paying attention saw a big kid with a broad smile on his face, who was unabashedly gleeful in the obligatory interview that followed as he explained in broken English that he always dreamed of playing for the Los Angeles Lakers.
What a difference a month makes. Not only has Zubac charmed his way into the hearts and minds of Lakers fans everywhere, but it turns out he is also a skilled basketball player with a great deal of potential. At age 19, he is only going to get bigger and stronger. The truth is, he was the best and most consistent performer on the team’s Summer League squad which just completed its 2016 schedule.
Much has been written about D’Angelo Russell’s improvement this summer. He emerged as a strong leader, and his ability to score in a variety of ways was impressive. But in certain crucial areas Russell was unable to silence those who continue to question if he is a real point guard. He did not get his teammates involved in the flow of the offense or create easy shots for others. He did not facilitate ball movement, and his defense was still questionable. His frequent turnovers were also worrisome.
Russell emerged from Summer League a far more confident player which is a great sign, but his performance left important questions unanswered.
Larry Nance, Jr. also showcased his improved skills in Summer League until he was injured in the last minute of a disappointing loss to Cleveland. Except for the third game against Golden State in which he completely disappeared and did not score, Nance showed improved outside shooting, rebounding, and shot blocking ability to go along with his ever-present hustle and ability to finish around the rim.
If he stays healthy, Nance is slotted to play a major role as Julius Randle’s backup at power forward and may also see regular action if the team goes to a small-ball line-up.
The player Lakers fans were most excited to see in Summer League was Ingram. He had a solid first game but then struggled in the next three contests. Opposing players started to get more physical, and Ingram had trouble responding. In the final game, Ingram finally put it together, scoring in a variety of ways and finishing with 22 points. He also grabbed five rebounds, had four assists, and used his length effectively on defense.
Ingram did not make the splash in Summer League that fans expected, but he has excellent form and did not get discouraged. There is every reason to believe he has a bright future as he matures and grows stronger.
Russell, Nance, and Ingram had big moments, but it was Zubac who stole the show. At 7’1″, 265 pounds, he was a big presence in the paint. While he is not a great leaper, he vigorously contested shots around the rim and with his long arms extended it was hard to shoot over him. His shot blocking ability was impressive, the result of high energy, desire, and timing.
It was on offense that Zubac was surprising. He has a consistent mid-range shot and great footwork in the paint that enabled him to score in a variety of ways from shorter range. He also ran the court and scored effectively on the break.
Zubac ended his Summer League experience on a high note, scoring 16 points, grabbing 11 rebounds (six of which were offensive), and blocking six shots, in a close loss to the Utah Jazz. Afterward, he announced that he was returning to Croatia for a week before returning to Los Angeles to work on his strength and conditioning the rest of the summer.
Any discussion of Zubac would be incomplete without commenting on his happy and positive demeanor on and off the court. It is very refreshing to see an athlete in this era who smiles and expresses joy at the idea of playing a game for a living and doing so for a storied franchise like the Lakers. In an honest and natural way, he has already become a favorite of Lakers fans, media, and his teammates.
Despite all he has shown this past week, some are still questioning whether Ivica Zubac will be on the regular season roster when the season starts. When he was drafted, there were suggestions he might be better off remaining in Europe for another year or two. Then there was speculation that he might be assigned to play in the D-League this year. With all due respect to the skeptics, the better question is how does the coaching staff keep him out of the regular rotation next season and at what point will fans start chanting his name if he’s not playing?