Only a couple days removed from his 20th birthday, Los Angeles Lakers rookie center Ivica Zubac sat in front of his locker. The team had practiced on the center's birthday, but seemingly no one had remembered, and the kid escaped the Saturday practice without embarrassingly singing in front of the team while reporters filmed from the sidelines.
Instead, the center marked the end of his teenage years with a helicopter ride over Los Angeles, a city where Zubac has quickly become a fan favorite.
Prior to nearly every game, Zubac owns the space in front of his locker like he currently owns the starting center position for the Lakers. Unlike the majority of his older teammates who often hide away in the players-only lounge, decline to speak to the media pregame or joke around while making arrangements for tickets, Zubac sits stoically at his locker half playing on his phone. If asked for an interview, the center generally obliges and answers questions honestly without dropping the flurry of clichés that seemingly live in professional sports locker rooms.
While the professionalism the 7-foot 1-inch center displays regularly is commendable and notable, he is still in the infancy of his NBA career. Zubac only recently moved into the starting lineup and expects to start his ninth straight game on Tuesday night against the Washington Wizards. Since becoming a starter, Zubac is averaging 12.4 points and 6.25 rebounds on 60.8 percent shooting in 23.9 minutes per game.
"I got to prepare more for the games," Zubac speaks about his transition to the starting lineup in his thick Eastern European accent. "I got to be ready for better players and starting lineups, just get a bit more focused, more prepared and got to be in better shape."
Before celebrating his 20th birthday, Zubac became the first Lakers' teenager to ever score 25 points and pull down 10+ rebounds in the same game. Far from a finished product, though, the 20-year-old understands where he needs to improve the most: "I got to be better on defense, so I'll keep working on that until the end of the season."
The center adds, "Every area: pick and roll defense, post defense, closing out. Everything."
Lakers coach Luke Walton, who credited Zubac's hard work in practice and in the NBA Development League as the driving factors in pushing the then 19-year-old into the starting lineup, also pointed to the defensive side of the ball when asked about what areas to big Bosnian-born Croatian needed to work on entering the summer.
Walton said, "He needs to get defensively ready to make plays. His reactions are a little slow. I think it's because he's constantly standing upright. He needs to do a better job of staying low when he's away from the ball. When he's engaged in the play, he's pretty good as far as being active and reacting to what's happening. But a lot of times, he gets either fouls or beat because he has to react to once he sees the action, and that takes too long in this league."
The coach added, "I think he'll continue to get stronger, which will obviously help. He's got a real good feel for protecting the rim and getting block shots."
With regards to getting stronger, Zubac's offseason focus is precisely on building up his body. While the Croatian's pronunciation of the word "muscles" is endearing and forces an exercise in reporters' face muscles, the young center seems to understand that his offseason work in the weight room is of the utmost importance.
"We're going to work hard on my body, put on some muscles," Zubac tells NBCLA.com about his summer plans. "That's going to help me a lot to run faster, to move quicker, to jump higher. So that's where we should start. There's a lot of work to do. I think every part of my body needs improvement."
Zubac adds, "In Europe, I didn't do a lot (of weight training), maybe once a week or something like that. And it was very light. And now, I'm doing every day in the weight room. It's really different. I like it. It helps me a lot. I think this summer I'm going to spend a lot of time in weight room, and next season is going to be much better."
While Zubac contends that players in Europe are more physical due to the style of play, the Croatian says that NBA players are quicker and more athletic than their European counterparts. The weight training is a means to help Zubac close that gap. After all, he is only 20.
Asked how he can work on quickness and defensive speed over the summer, Zubac offers an answer that is the opposite of the sports cliché and yet sounds like the perfect response every coach and team would love to overhear from a player: "To be honest, I don't know. My coaches know. They're going to know everything. I just got to listen to them. They know what they do. I think that's the only way I can improve: to work hard, to listen to my coaches. Not to question anything."
Zubac summarizes succinctly, "Coaches say what to do. I do it."
Thus far, Zubac's mature attitude and strong work ethic has resulted in a degree of growth so pronounced that high priced center Timofey Mozgov may be in serious danger of losing his starting spot at the start of the 2017-18 season. While fans will point to Mozgov's $16 million salary with disdain, the truth is that the Russian center losing his starting spot would have more to do with Zubac's sudden unexpected rise than Mozgov's decline.
Walton will likely face a tough decision entering the 2017-18 season. When the coach drones about Zubac's strengths, though, the coach adds to the rim protection and shot blocking with the far more offensive strengths: "He's got great touch obviously. I think he'll continue to improve as far as finding his spots on the floor."
In fact, Walton called a play for Zubac to shoot a three-pointer at the end of the first half on Sunday night. The shot missed, but the fact that Walton ran the play suggests the coach acknowledges that his 20-year-old 7-footer could be a three-point threat sooner rather than later. After the game, the center reminded reporters that he's made three-pointers in the NBA Development League and shoots the shot in practice.
Zubac's biggest fan and best friend on the team is undoubtedly second-year forward Larry Nance Jr. Nance is the guy that decided to spit out a flurry of nicknames like "Zu Alcindor" and "Zu-pac" when the Croatian put on a couple positive performances earlier in the season. In fact, the pair actually bought t-shirts that featured Zubac's face imposed on a 2Pac-style image—bandana and all. As a note, Zubac said he did not know the people making the t-shirts, but he was not upset about it and liked the shirts.
"I think Zu and Larry got great chemistry on and off the court," Walton says with a laugh. "They're buddy-buddy."
Even if the team forgot to celebrate the Croatian's 20th birthday, Nance didn't forget. He met Zubac for lunch to mark the occasion.
"Confidence," Nance responds with one word when asked how he's seen his big buddy change over the course of the season. "He came into the year not sure about himself, about measuring up against these guys. I was there two years ago. You watch them on T.V. and they seem like juggernauts but now you're here and you're competing against them, and it's like, ‘Hey, they're human too.' I think you've gotten to see his confidence grow and he's starting to feel himself and get to his shots a little bit more."
Nance added, "There's still part of his game you guys haven't seen. He can shoot. He can shoot all the way from three pretty consistently. And I'm hoping he gets to show these last couple games. He's got a pretty complete arsenal. I'm looking forward to seeing it."
While the summer timeline has not yet been set since the Lakers still have nine games remaining on the docket, Zubac plans to spend the majority of the offseason working out in LA.
"First, going home to spend time with my family and my friends," Zubac says when quizzed on his post-season plans. "And then, I look forward to working out. I want to work out a lot. I want to improve a lot over the summer, so I'm going to be dedicated and good things will happen."
Asked if he'll be joining his buddy for workouts over the summer, Nance says he hasn't thought about anything but resting following the season. Then, the forward adds with a knowing smile, "We'll both be out here (in LA), so I'm sure we'll get some work in."