Ivica Zubac was one of the few bright spots for the Los Angeles Lakers this past week as the team dropped games to the Golden State Warriors and Minnesota Timberwolves before salvaging the stretch with an important if uninspiring victory over the Phoenix Suns.
As improbable as it seemed a month ago, Zubac now becomes the first person to receive consecutive Player of the Week honors in this column. Of course, LeBron James was declared ineligible to earn such recognition since he would win every week, and what fun is that?
Other members of the Lakers have had their moments this season. Kyle Kuzma scored a career-high 41 points against the Detroit Pistons. Lonzo Ball registered a triple-double against the Charlotte Hornets. Brandon Ingram scored 17 first-half points to build a lead over the Suns.
Lance Stephenson has had moments where he dazzled, coming off the bench to hit consecutive three-point shots that rescued the Lakers when they stopped scoring. JaVale McGee was a shot-blocking machine earlier in the season, and Josh Hart has played tough defense against talented opponents.
But their problem to a man has been a profound lack of consistency. With virtually every player mentioned above, you never know what you are going to get from one game to the next.
Enter Zubac, who has been the exception. He has been remarkably consistent this past month.
For one thing, he has emerged as the team’s best free throw shooter as is making an eye-opening 90 percent on the season. When was the last time a true back-to-the-basket center led his team in free throw shooting?
Kentavious Caldwell-Pope is solid in this category, and Kuzma is pretty good, but watching anyone else on the team shoot free throws is painful.
Then there is rebounding. McGee and Tyson Chandler have rebounded well this season – certainly better than Brook Lopez did last year. Zubac is much improved in this category and is regularly averaging around eight a game whenever he plays reasonable minutes. He’s coming off a career-high 16 rebounds.
Then there is shooting percentage. Zubac is shooting 60.2 percent from the field, best on the team. Last week, he made 7-of-8 shots against the Warriors and has had several nights where he has barely missed.
Zubac is not especially athletic or fleet afoot, but he looks much quicker and stronger than he has before. He is also getting off the ground better. Against the Suns, Zubac was instrumental in double teaming Devin Booker and then rushing back to guard his man when Booker passed the ball. He also had four blocks, in an all-around impressive display of defense for a big center.
One positive contribution that is often overlooked when Zubac is discussed is the screens he sets for his teammates. While Chandler and McGee are often assessed offensive fouls for setting a moving screen, Zubac has a large body and sets quality screens while rarely getting called for a foul.
When the West Coast awoke to the shocking news that Anthony Davis was demanding a trade, it was a clear sign that he wants to go to the Lakers since the other team with the most assets to trade, the Boston Celtics, cannot make a move until the summer.
The biggest sign of just how far Zubac’s stock has risen in such a short time is the fact that he reportedly would have to be part of the starting offer for Davis that also includes, at a minimum, Lonzo Ball, Kyle Kuzma and a first-round draft pick.
That the Pelicans reportedly covet Zubac more than Brandon Ingram or Josh Hart is startling.
This past week was not a good one for the Lakers. They did not play especially well even in the one game in which they prevailed. But Zubac was an exception, as he continued his very good and consistent level of play.
Whether he remains with the team or is packaged in a deal for Davis, Zubac, at age 21, looks like he has finally arrived as an NBA player.
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