There was a time when it seemed realistic that Ivica Zubac could emerge into a viable starting center for the Los Angeles Lakers in the years head. Those days now seem like a distant memory, but in a season which has already featured its shares of highs and lows, his the past week was been nothing short of astounding.
JaVale McGee has proven his immense value to the Lakers this season, and other than LeBron James, he is perhaps the last person on the roster the team would want to be unavailable to play.
So when he contracted pneumonia and had to be hospitalized this past week, the situation looked bleak. The team Lakers Tyson Chandler in the starting lineup against the Brooklyn Nets but with poor results.
Chandler, who is close to end of his stellar career, is fine coming off the bench and playing modest minutes, but he is no longer capable of starting especially on a team that wants to push the pace.
Then the coaching staff did the unthinkable, perhaps out of desperation or perhaps in a moment of pure genius: They inserted Zubac into the starting lineup. The results have been miraculous.
After an eye-opening rookie season, Zubac thought he was going to be the starting center last year. But after a poor showing in Summer League, the front office decided to trade for Brook Lopez and sign Andrew Bogut to play with the second unit.
Zubac was exiled to the G League, where he spent much of the season. Zubac was with the team for only 43 games last year and averaged only 9.5 minutes per contest. Most of that time came in the second half of the season in the fourth quarter of games that were not close. It was essentially a lost year.
His stock in the organization had fallen so far so fast that most fans did not expect him to return this year. But in a surprise move, the front office announced the team was parting ways with second-year center Thomas Bryant and retaining Zubac for another season.
Still, through 30 games this year, Zubac barely played.
But when the Lakers, who had dropped two in a row, faced a must-win game against the New Orleans Pelicans this week, there was Zubac trotting onto the court to start the game. It was a move that caught nearly everyone by surprise, but it worked out well.
Zubac got off to a fast start against the Pelicans and finished the game with an excellent stat line of 16 points, 11 rebounds and 2 blocks. He made 8-of -0 shots from the field. Zubac was confident and aggressive, and he worked hard on defense and was a force around the rim.
In short, he did not look anything like the passive, slow, awkward player of the past season and a half. Three plays in particular stood out.
One time, Zubac and Anthony Davis were wrestling for the ball and Zubac ripped it out of Davis’ hands. During another play, as Davis was soaring towards the basket for a dunk, Zubac met ball high in the air and blocked the shot. Finally, in a key fourth quarter play, he solidly blocked the shot of former teammate Julius Randle.
In the following game against the Memphis Grizzles, Zubac found himself in the starting lineup again and got the team off to a fast start with 16 first-half points en route to 19 points total for the game. Although he only had 4 rebounds, he also had 4 blocks. The Lakers lost the game but Zubac did his part.
McGee could return in the near future but Zubac has earned more playing time with his two strong performances last week. This is especially the case with Chandler reportedly suffering from back spasms.
For whatever reason, for the first time in a long time, Zubac resembled the promising young player of his rookie season this past week. It bears remembering that he is still only 21 years old. If he is starting to figure things out, it could be a very positive development for the Lakers.
For his excellent all-around performance which came at a time that the team really needed him, Ivica Zubac is the obvious choice as the Lakers Player of The Week.
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