Timofey Mozgov expected to sit out, and in the final game of 2016 preseason, Los Angeles Lakers coach Luke Walton had a choice to make at center: Yi Jianlian or Ivica Zubac.
Yi was widely expected to make the team due to a trade-friendly contract despite the Chinese center failing to overly impress on the court. Still, growth of the Lakers’ brand in the largest emerging basketball market on the planet, China, would certainly ensure that Yi would earn a start and a spot, right?
Instead, Walton went with 19-year-old Ivica Zubac to start that preseason finale, signaling the coach's belief in the young Croatian, while simultaneously signaling the end of Jianlian's Laker odyssey. Soon after, the team waived Jianlian, citing that the player and his agent had made a request to do so.
Even if it was for a meaningless preseason game, Walton had picked Zubac over Jianlian.
Zubac did not play any part in the Lakers’ first three games, but the 240-pound center got his first regular season opportunity five games into the season, in Atlanta. Mozgov missed the game against the Hawks due to a right eye contusion, and Walton chose to go with Zubac in the starting spot over Tarik Black or Thomas Robinson.
In 19 minutes, Zubac made three of his four shots, grabbed four rebounds and scored six points to help beat Dwight Howard and the Hawks. Once Mozgov returned, Zubac returned to the end of the bench for the remainder of November, only featuring for a minute in the Lakers' blowout victory over the Golden State Warriors and eight garbage time minutes in the Lakers’ blowout loss to the Minnesota Timberwolves.
To start December, the Bosnian born behemoth shuttled up and down from the NBA Development League, making three spot appearances that lasted five minutes or fewer with the Lakers. Then, Walton called on Mozgov in Orlando on Dec. 20 to replace Black off the bench, who was injured with a sprained ankle. He played 17 minutes in the 19-point defeat, though he hardly deserved blame for the Lakers losing.
In January, though, Walton slowly but surely decided Zubac deserved more opportunities.
Thursday's defeat in Utah was the eighth straight game Zubac took the court for the purple and gold. In three of those games, Zubac, who turns 20 in March, played over 20 minutes. No coincidence, he recorded double-doubles in all three of those extended appearances.
When breaking down Zubac's game, one cannot help but first acknowledge his size. The kid is officially listed at 7-foot 1-inch, though that hardly seems like an exaggeration. He's a legitimate 7-footer in a league that is literally and figuratively short in that department.
Also, he can shoot. While he may not yet be attempting three-pointers in the NBA, Zubac expressed that he works on the long-range shot and expects to have it be part of his game. Centers rarely excel from the foul line, but Zubac has made 12 of his 14 free throws since joining the Lakers. He's got a smooth stroke that implies that his 15-foot jump shot and his 27-foot jump shot could play vital roles in the Lakers' offense for the future.
Zubac's trademark move thus far is a sky hook that he has worked on tirelessly. In fact, the center's strength is finishing around the basket. In his own words, Zubac told NBCLA that he sees himself as an offensive player, so the defensive side of the ball is always going to be more challenging for the big man.
Defensively, though, he's no slouch. Given his larger than life stature, the towering center has a reputation of being a shot blocker and even earned the nickname "Zu-blocka" from his teammates in Europe. Zubac recorded three blocks in two of the three games where he appeared for greater than 20 minutes.
The future is bright for the Lakers' second round pick, who was selected in the no. 32 spot over all. With the Lakers sitting on a record of 16-34, which is the second worst mark in the NBA, Walton should look to focus further on developing young talent, and Zubac should be a prime beneficiary of the final leg of the 2016-17 season.