While it might be a lost year for the Los Angeles Clippers in terms of their NBA title aspirations, the silver lining of this season has been the development of their young players.
Ivica Zubac in particular has come on strong over the past few weeks with the best basketball of his career so far. It is easy to forget that the seven-footer from Bosnia and Herzegovina is just about to turn 25 given that he is already in his sixth year in the league.
He was initially drafted by the Los Angeles Lakers with the 32nd overall pick in the 2016 NBA Draft and showed promise in the limited minutes that he was given during his two and a half seasons with them. He was eventually traded to the Clippers before the 2019 trade deadline for Mike Muscala in a misguided “win-now” move that turned heads the minute it was announced.
The trade has aged even better for the Clippers three years later as Zubac has thrived and developed into a more than serviceable starting center. He has become much more mobile and aggressive on both ends of the court this year while still avoiding foul trouble. This has paved the way for him to put up career-high averages of 9.9 points, 8.3 rebounds, and a block in 24.2 minutes per game.
Although Zubac’s name is never top of mind when “modern NBA centers” are discussed, he is actually the perfect kind of big man for today’s game. He does not demand several post touches per game like a 1990s style big man nor is he a brick-handed giant with no feel for the ball.
What Zubac does have is a soft touch around the basket and a reliable right hook that is practically automatic when he is in the paint. He runs the floor well for a player of his size, is a quality screen-setter, and excels as a rim-runner. Furthermore, he has also established himself as a quality rebounder on either end of the court and an above average shotblocker on defense. What’s even more tantalizing is that he is developing a knack for reading situations and making the right pass.
The strides that he has made were on full display in their 112-106 loss to the Atlanta Hawks where he put up 24 points on 10-of-13 shooting, 12 rebounds (four offensive), four assists, one steal, and two blocks in 36 minutes.
Zubac hardly had plays called for him and did not have any isolations, but he impacted the game in several ways and was actually a team-high +8 on the evening.
This inspired showing versus the Hawks is by no means an outlier and has slowly become more commonplace for Zubac. Two weeks ago, he had 14 points, 15 rebounds, and six blocks in a win over the Houston Rockets and followed it up with 22 points and 12 rebounds versus the same team a couple of nights later.
The former second round pick then wrapped up his strongest three-game stretch of the year with 19 points, nine rebounds, and two blocks versus the same Laker franchise that drafted him.
However, his best performance of this season–and his career for that matter–came last January when he dueled with reigning NBA Most Valuable Player Nikola Jokic of the Denver Nuggets. Zubac racked up a career-best 32 points on 15-of-19 shooting and also had 10 rebounds, three assists, and a block.
Jokic had 49 points, 14 rebounds, and 10 assists en route to picking up the victory for the Nuggets, yet the game also served as a confidence-booster for Zubac who proved that he could go toe-to-toe with the best of them. Though he may never have to carry the same offensive responsibilities that Jokic has, these kinds of games are a reminder of how much progress he has made from when he first made his NBA debut as a 19-year-old.
Zubac is exactly the kind of low maintenance center that the many perimeter-oriented teams in the modern NBA need. He should thrive further once Kawhi Leonard and Paul George eventually return and once again command most of the attention from opposing defenses.
He may not have flashy skills or even catch the attention of a casual fan, but Zubac is proving to be one of the most valuable centers in the league today with his silent effectiveness and efficiency. The Clippers have lofty expectations for the future and his continued development will play a major role in determining how far they can go.