When Andrew Bogut signed with the Los Angeles Lakers ahead of training camp, 20-year-old center Ivica Zubac should have heard alarm bells.
The Croatian started 11 games in his rookie season and showed promise after the team had shifted into development mode late in the season. During exit interviews, Zubac expressed a desire to continue showing improvement over the summer and fight for a starting spot over Timofey Mozgov. Before those battles ever took play, though, Mozgov was traded for center Brook Lopez in a deal best known for shipping D'Angelo Russell to Brooklyn.
Given Lopez's offensive skill, Zubac looked in line to be the backup center, but an awful showing at the NBA Summer League even brought that role into question.
"He was disappointed," Lakers coach Luke Walton spoke about the young center's dismal performance in the Las Vegas tournament. "Obviously, we were disappointed. I had to sit down and talk with him."
After the Summer League concluded, Walton worried that Zubac may not be able to keep up with the up and down style of play the Lakers intended to play, and so, the message was clear: focus on diet and improve mobility. A couple months later, the 20-year-old Croatian surprised his coach and came into camp carrying only eight percent body fat. Nearly a week after training camp opened, Walton noted the improved movement, and the coach no longer worried about his center keeping up with the pace of play.
"I was not frustrated, but I was not happy about my play," Zubac said about his Summer League performance on Sunday. "I knew what type of player I am; I knew what I can do, how I can help the team. I was just working on the things I needed to improve, and it paid off, and I just continued where I left last season."
Zubac added, "I work whole summer [sic] and (it) really paid off. I feel much better. The game is much slower. It's nothing like Summer League. Summer League was just up and down the whole game. This is much slower pace and fits me."
Still, Bogut's arrival promised stiffer competition for playing time and possibly even pushing the young center out of the rotation, so how did Zubac receive the Aussie's arrival?
"Another guy who I can learn from," Zubac offered his mature view. "Brook (Lopez) is a great offensive center, one of the best in the league. There's so much I can learn from him. And bringing in Bogut, who was one of the best defensive centers in the league last couple of years, it's great. I can learn so much from him. He already help [sic] me a lot. He speaks Croatian, so it's much easier for me. It's great. I know I'm going to fight for my minutes every time I'm on the court or in practice, so I'm just looking for way [sic] I can learn from them."
In a basketball sense, Zubac understands the advantages of playing with a veteran like Bogut. In a human sense, Bogut provides an ear that can understand the young center playing over 6,000 miles from home in his native tongue, as well as a voice that can better explain minor technical nuances of the game that may be slightly getting lost in translation.
"It's great," Zubac beams with joy and shares that he and Bogut have 95 percent of their conversations in Croatian. "I have somebody who understands me, finally!"
While Zubac may have been half joking with that line, he quickly adds, "It's so much easier, and [I] think sometimes it's hard to catch up in English like when a coach is trying to explain something and to have (Bogut) to help me and say that in Croatian really helped me a lot."
Though Bogut is Australian, his parents are Croatian, and the Aussie spends at least a few weeks every summer in the Balkans. He may not have studied the language formally, but Bogut speaks Croatian in daily conversations with his family. Zubac rated the Aussie's fluency at a nine out of 10, though Bogut disagreed with that sentiment, sharing that his family often laughs at his poor grammar.
"My grammar is horrible," Bogut responded when told of Zubac's high rating.
The Aussie added about his new teammate, "His English is very good, but sometimes he doesn't understand things as much as he would like, and sometimes when you hear it in your native tongue, it kind of clicks in a little more. So, whenever I can help him in that sense, it's no problem."
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Bogut, who only took part in his first contact practice in eight months on Sunday following a drawn out visa process that forced the Australian to Vancouver for a few days, is already taking Zubac under his wing. On the court and off it, Bogut expressed a desire to help the player, who is 12 years his junior, that will most likely be the most direct competitor in practices and for playing time. For Walton, both veteran centers fit the profile of guys Zubac can learn from and both guys offer the type of veteran leadership that can help Zubac grow his game on the practice court.
Zubac echoed Bogut's sentiment, "I can understand whatever (the coaches) say, but sometimes it's much easier to hear some tiny details, to hear in Croatian. Like I said, (Bogut)'s one of the best defensive centers and he's playing my position, so every practice, he's showing me something new."
Curiosity and desire are a large part of the learning process, and Bogut has displayed a genuine interest in improving on both ends. Already, Zubac has asked Lopez to show him a spin move the former Nets center used regularly a season ago, while Bogut spoke of showing Zubac little defensive tricks that come with spending a dozen years in the NBA. After all, Zubac was only eight years old when Bogut was drafted no. 1 overall by the Milwaukee Bucks in 2005, so the 2015 NBA champion knows a thing or two about playing defense in the NBA.
Could the shared language be a coincidence or did the Lakers tell Bogut that part of his job would be to serve as a translator for Zubac when they signed him?
The Aussie center laughed at the question, "I would've asked for more money if it was."