Recently, Los Angeles Lakers head coach Luke Walton came out and said that the team is on the verge of realizing the playoff drought will not be coming to an end this season. As the Lakers get closer to being eliminated from playoff contention in the Western Conference, the team likely be making some changes with young players like Ivica Zubac seeing an increased role.
Over the past few games, Zubac has seen a considerable boost in minutes, and he’s made every moment count when he’s on the floor by producing at a very high level. In four of the last six games he’s played, Zubac has scored in double figures and in three of those games he finished with a double-double.
On Tuesday, Zubac helped lead the Lakers to win over the visiting Denver Nuggets with a career-best 17 points in 21 minutes. The rookie put on a show and is quickly making a strong case to be a starter alongside D’Angelo Russell and company.
In this week’s Lakers Nation roundtable, we asked our panel of experts the question that has seemingly been on everyone’s mind: Is it time to make Ivica Zubac a starter?
Nick Torres (@Nickotee)
Ivica Zubac has been a pleasant surprise for the Lakers as of late. He has played important minutes late in games against some very good teams. With starting center, Timofey Mozgov, not playing all too well at the moment, I believe it is time to start the rookie. He battles for rebounds and has shown he has good defensive instincts that can help the team.
In my opinion, Zubac’s play is very similar to Pau Gasol. He doesn’t possess superior strength or quickness but knows what his strong points are and uses them to his advantage. By playing him more, the Lakers will get an extensive look at what their future might look with him, D’Angelo Russell, Jordan Clarkson, and Brandon Ingram all sharing the floor.
Hopefully, Luke Walton continues to use his rookie center more often and build up his confidence to let him know he belongs in this league.
Corey Hansford (@TheeCoreyH)
For me, this is a matter of offense vs. defense. Ivica Zubac is already the better offensive player. He has a variety of different ways he can score, is excellent in the pick-and-roll, and has great hands around the basket.
Defensively, however, Timofey Mozgov is ahead of him. Where Mozgov is really important is as a communicator in that last line of defense. He is constantly talking and is great at anticipating and helping when guards penetrate. Zubac can still be a step slow seeing the drives, but that is to be expected since he’s still so young.
I’d still start Mozgov for the time being, but I do believe it’s only a matter of time before Zubac surpasses him. When that happens, I think Luke Walton would be wise to also move Larry Nance Jr. into the starting lineup to replace Julius Randle as Nance can make up for the defensive drop-off between the two.
Daniel Starkand (@DStarkand)
I have a feeling this won’t be the popular answer among Laker fans, but I think that at least for now Zubac should remain a bench player.
The reason I feel that way is because his sample size is still too small at this point. He has performed well in the past six games or so, but six games are nothing compared to an 82-game season. If he continues to play the way he has been let us say for the next 10 games or so, then I think he could be in line for a starting role. But six games is just not enough.
Also, Timofey Mozgov has still looked better than Zubac on the defensive end of the floor. I don’t think Mozgov gets enough credit defensively because he often gets left out to dry trying to help when one of the guards gets beat. There have been instances where Zubac has struggled defensively, like against the Indiana Pacers and Al Jefferson, and Mozgov came in and limited Jefferson tremendously.
With the Lakers being one of the worst defensive teams in the league, I think having Mozgov in the middle starting games is needed right now, despite it being very clear that Zubac is much more talented offensively.
Lastly, I think Zubac coming off the bench and playing against second unit centers, as opposed to starters, will work in his favor. There are some outstanding centers in the Western Conference that Zubac would have to go up against on a nightly basis if he is starting like Demarcus Cousins, Karl-Anthony Towns, Anthony Davis, DeAndre Jordan, Marc Gasol, the list goes on and on. I don’t think he’s quite ready to face those challenges yet.
So for now, I would continue bringing Zubac off the bench, where he has thrived. He has been getting a big portion of the fourth quarter minutes at center the last few games, so I also hope that continues, whether he is starting or not.
Trevor Lane (@Trevor_Lane)
I’ve gone back and forth on this, but I don’t think starting Zubac is something that has to happen this season. Don’t get me wrong, he has been fantastic, but he has only been unleashed for a couple of weeks at this point. Let’s pump the brakes and allow him to really get his footing in the NBA before we start tossing him into the starting lineup.
Minutes are really the most important thing, and over the past four games, Zubac has averaged more minutes than starting center Timofey Mozgov. Assuming Walton keeps that up, I don’t mind seeing Mozgov deal with the likes of DeAndre Jordan and DeMarcus Cousins while Zubac gets to come in a find a rhythm against the opposing backup big. Zu-Mania has taken hold, but there is no need to rush things at this point.
Eric Avakian (@EAvakian5)
As the season has progressed for the Los Angeles Lakers, fans have gotten to witness this young core evolve and grow from the constant experience. With that being said, I believe head coach Luke Walton should pull the trigger and have Timofey Mozgov and Ivica Zubac battle to see who deserves the start. Based off of his recent performances, Zubac definitely deserves the edge for his play.
However, a hard notion for Walton to overcome is the thought of benching a center, who they paid $64 million dollars to (four years). As a 19-year-old, Zubac has already shown signs of a mature game, with his ability to set tough screens and the soft use of his hands around the paint. The young core outside of Zubac seems to enjoy his presence, as they have played well alongside each other.
At the end of the day, Walton’s job when signing with the Lakers was to help aid this young group of players, in order to progress their games into a playoff-caliber team. At times this season the Lakers have proven that, defeating many playoff hopeful teams. In my opinion, I believe Walton would rather have the wins come from the development of the young players, while the losses will translate to experience and allow these players to learn from their mistakes. Moving forward, Walton should insert Zubac and the young players into the starting lineup, as they have a chance to prove that there is much to be excited about in Laker land.