Player Review: Ivica Zubac Goes Above and Beyond

Garrett Chorpenning

L.A. Clippers center Ivica Zubac made a big impression on fans during the 2019-2020 season, quickly emerging as a fan favorite for his energetic and efficient play. The 23-year-old big man played his role to perfection and then some, going well above the expectations that were set for him.

If the current season does return, Zubac will get a chance to make an impact in the postseason while the Clippers make their run to the NBA Finals. But for now, we'll be focusing on what he's already managed to accomplish this year.

Beginnings

Zubac joined the L.A. Clippers near the end of the 2018-2019 season when he was traded from the Los Angeles Lakers with Michael Beasley in exchange for Mike Muscala, who the Clippers had just acquired from the Philadelphia 76ers. A restricted free agent that summer, the Lakers did not want to re-sign him and have him eat up any additional cap space that the team could use to surround LeBron James and Anthony Davis with veteran talent. 

But as the old saying goes, one man's trash is another man's treasure — and Zubac began to show signs of that in his Clippers debut.

In a comeback win over the Boston Celtics, Zubac posted an efficient line of 12 points, nine rebounds and three blocks in 23 minutes.

Over the remaining 25 games of the regular season, Zubac would establish himself as a formidable big man, averaging 9.4 points and 7.7 rebounds in 20.2 minutes and posting four double-doubles.

At the same time, Zubac was rushing and missing plenty of shots around the rim, and he could be slow to get down the court at times. He was, of course, dealing with multiple injuries, so it's easy to overlook those things now. But back then, there was some cause for concern.

Things only got worse in the postseason, when Zubac was played off the floor by the Golden State Warriors. After making starts in 25 of 26 games for the Clippers, he logged two DNPs against Golden State and played 10 minutes or less in three of his four appearances. He did record 18 points and 15 rebounds in Game 3, but that's an outlier as most of his minutes came in garbage time in a game the Clippers lost by 27.

L.A. re-signed Zubac over the summer to a four-year deal worth $28 million, which was well within reason. The Clippers wouldn't be out too much money if his play didn't improve, and the contract would become very valuable to the franchise if he did. 

So how did he do?

Performance

From the jump, Zubac has looked like a different player this season for the L.A. Clippers. In short, he's a much-improved player around the rim, a terrific teammate that plays unselfish, winning basketball, and his confidence is through the roof. From a younger, more traditional center, he's everything a team could hope for.

Like a number of his teammates, Zubac is posting career-best numbers with the Clippers this season. Although his 8.0 points per game aren't his highest to date, Zubac is averaging career-highs in rebounds (7.2 and 2.6 offensive), assists (1.1), blocks (0.9) and field goal percentage (60.1%). He's also appeared in all 64 games this season, which is five more than he has before. 

What's most impressive about Zubac's numbers is his efficiency — he's playing just 18.1 minutes per game with L.A., meaning his per-36 numbers are off the charts. And while you can never rely solely on offensive rating, his rating of 131.8 — which ranks second in the league, according to Basketball-Reference — helps to paint some of the picture. 

Zubac also ranks highly in defensive rating (15th), offensive rebound percentage (1st) and true shooting percentage (9th), to name a few. He also ranks 11th in total offensive rebounds with 166, which is particularly impressive since he's played 25 or more minutes just once this season. 

All that said, nothing is more important than the fact that Zubac has made clear improvements in the areas of his game that needed it most. He's much more patient and efficient around the rim, rarely going too far under the basket or pulling up from too far out in the post. He's become a weapon in fast breaks, running the floor with ease and finishing strong at the rim. He sets excellent screens and is a terrific rim protector. 

Zubac has also developed excellent on-court chemistry with Kawhi Leonard and Paul George, both of whom rarely hesitate to feed him inside for an easy look at the rim. And while that may not sound like much, you have to remember that this is someone who couldn't be on the floor in the playoffs last season — and has now gained the trust of two of the 10 best players in the NBA. 

The trio of Zubac, Leonard and George has outscored opponents by 13.3 points per 100 possessions, making it the most efficient three-man group the Clippers have rolled out this season (min. 350 minutes). 

Of course, there are still some things that Zubac can work on. Implementing a three-point shot into his game would make him all the more valuable in today's NBA. It's something he's been working on for a while now, but we've yet to see it in an actual game. Zubac can also be a bit quick to foul sometimes, which has resulted in some early exits this season. Improving his defensive positioning could really elevate his game to the next level. 

Grade: A

Outlook

Zubac has already proven to be a valuable asset to the L.A. Clippers, and his $28 million contract looks like more and more of a steal as the days progress. Time will tell if he can make the jump and become one of the league's best bigs, but for now, all parties should be satisfied with what he's been able to accomplish.

The postseason will be his biggest test. If Zubac can stay on the floor against the league's best teams in an ultra-competitive setting, then there will be no doubt about his future with the team. And based on what we've seen so far this season, it seems safe to assume that he'll deliver.

Now if only the Clippers would give him minutes in the fourth quarter...

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