Ivica Zubac’s career-best game was two seasons in the making

Ivica Zubac is the clipper with the longest tenure – and perhaps the quickest to overlook.

The 7ft is vital for a small sized Clippers team – yet its presence can be taken for granted.

Coach Tyronn Lue made sure neither was the case on a recent morning at the Clippers’ training facility, interrupting a film study session at the shootaround to draw attention to the 25-year-old Croatian, who hasn’t yet had the star power of some teammates deserves much credit for keeping the Clippers (12-9) afloat.

“We call it the anchor,” Warden Luke Kennard said. “Only another team if he plays well.”

Zubac has been the anchor of the starting lineup since the first game after arriving via a trade from the Lakers in 2019. Even after new free agent Serge Ibaka took over the starting role in the early weeks of the 2020-21 season, Zubac took the job back following an Ibaka injury and never let go.

Zubac has recently boasted of what could be classed as a breakthrough – his impactful 2020 postseason after failing to stay on the pitch in the playoffs a year earlier; the confidence he’d earned from Lue over the past two seasons to play in the crunchtime minutes after being strapped late on the bench under Doc Rivers; his metronomic reliability with a streak of 205 consecutive appearances ending last season only because of a battle with COVID-19.

This season has been what many within the organization consider his undisputed best and worthy of consideration for awards, amid career-high averages of 30.8 minutes, 11.6 rebounds and 1.9 blocked shots, along with his 10.5 points, a season that culminated a Sunday with 31 points and 29 rebounds. Zubac became just the third NBA player in the past 49 seasons to finish with at least 31 points, 29 rebounds and three blocks – the last being Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in 1978.

“It’s crazy to be mentioned in the same sentence with Kareem and guys like that,” he said.

“To [is] one [of] the most underrated bigs in the league,” his former Lakers teammate Kyle Kuzma tweeted Sunday, “and I’m glad you had a game like this for everyone to see wow!!!!”

Just 10 players are averaging double-digit points and rebounds this season — another is Portland’s Jusuf Nurkic, who the Clippers face Tuesday — and in that small group, Zubac’s 61-percent shot from the field ranks second-best.

His playing time — averaging seven minutes more per game than last season — should be viewed not just as a function of being the lone big man in the Clippers’ rotation, Lue said, but as earned by his improvement.

Teammates and coaches cited Zubac’s increased physicality and his off-season for the Croatian national team in the EuroBasket, which allowed him to start training camp at the rhythm of the game.

“I want to contest every shot at the rim. I don’t want teams to have easy shots on the rim.”

– Ivica Zubac, Clippers Center, in his defence

Clippers center Ivica Zubac makes a save for Indiana Pacers guard Buddy Hield.

Lippers center Ivica Zubac makes a save for Indiana Pacers guard Buddy Hield.

(Mark J. Terrill / Associated Press)

“It was very beneficial,” said Lue.

“His desire to punish guards, his ability to punish people on the glass now has been amazing, and then defensively he really mans the color for us,” said guard Reggie Jackson. “I think he’s just maturing and he’s really taking full responsibility for being great and it’s been fun to watch.”

When asked about Zubac, Clippers players and coaches often add reservations to their praise, and that’s because, as one coach said, they want him to reach what they consider “another level”.

“I think we’re trying to find a good balance between giving him his flowers and letting him know that … his ceiling is still so much higher,” Jackson said.

Opponents make 45.2% of their shots within six feet of the basket when defended by Zubac, the best brand among the 33 centers tested most on the edge for those defending at least five per game to have.

“I want to contest every hit on the rim,” said Zubac. “I don’t want teams to have easy shots on the rim.”

When asked about Zubac’s progress, several Clippers cited the eye test – such as when he’s moved nimbly from auxiliary defense to hit layups – but the numbers also confirm his impact. In late November, a tweet showing Zubac as the NBA’s best at deterring shots to the rim was shared among the coaching staff.

“It’s glaring when he gets off the ground, we have a tough, tough time on defense and on the rebound,” Lue said.

For Batum, Zubac deserves to be in the award talk for the most improved player and top defender.

“We’re the #1, #2 defense in the NBA; it’s number 1 when it comes to rim protection,” said Batum. “…He has a case.

“Now we’re like, dude, you can’t walk off the pitch. We need them. That’s where he got his flowers from because you’re a big, big, big hunk. You were, but now even bigger.”

And it was impossible to ignore.

https://www.latimes.com/sports/clippers/story/2022-11-28/los-angeles-clippers-ivica-zubac-nba-center-development Ivica Zubac’s career-best game was two seasons in the making

Emma Bowman

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