With the second pick of the second round this past Thursday, the Los Angeles Lakers selected Ivica Zubac, a center out of Croatia. Zubac was not on many Lakers’ fans radar coming into the draft in large part due to the fact that it was highly unlikely he was going to be available when the Lakers made their second round pick. Zubac was projected to be a pick in the early 20s of the first round, but the Lakers were able to snatch him about ten spots after he was predicted to be chosen. Being one of the less heralded international prospects, not many fans have heard much about Zubac up until now so what will he bring to the purple and gold in the short term and what is his upside?
At 7’1” and 240 lbs. Zubac is a big, old-school center. His best asset is his effectiveness offensively, particularly when posting up on the block with his back to the basket. Thanks to his solid footwork and post moves, Zubac should be able to impact the game on the offensive end right away. In fact, NBA.com rated Zubac as having “the best post game in this draft class.” Zubac is very strong and has excellent touch around the rim to go along with his good footwork and moves from the block. For a player with his size, these traits all combine to create a very solid young center who can become a dominant post scorer. He exhibited some of his tantalizing potential last summer for Croatia’s U19 team, putting up averages of 17.6 points and 7.9 rebounds per game in only 26.5 minutes per game. Zubac is an advanced offensive center who has the potential to average upwards of 15-20 points per game at the NBA level.
Defensively, Zubac is decent, but he this side of his game is definitely below his offensive skillset. Thanks to his tremendous size and physicality, Zubac is a good post defender that is not afraid to have a physical battle on the post. However, the finer aspects of his defensive game are definitely lacking. His positional sense is not very good, which is typical for young players, but he also tends to be a bit heavy on his feet which will be problematic when having to defend the pick and roll. Part of his footwork issue defensively can be attributed to his lack of conditioning thanks to playing sparingly in the Croatian professional league, and this will need to be greatly improved upon if he wants to play significant minutes in 2016-17. In addition, he is not much of a rim protector at this stage, but as he develops and learns how to be in the correct position to protect the rim, this side of his game should improve as he is not lacking the necessary physical traits. Zubac is still raw in terms of his defense but many of these concerns are from a lack of practice. He has the athleticism to be a solid defender, but it is going to take time before the technical side of defending catches up. As a result, he will probably be a below average defender for the first few years of his career, but if he can put in the work and receive the correct coaching on the defensive end, he has the potential to become an above-average defender.
Rebounding is another area where Zubac can show some improvement. For a 7’1” center, Zubac does not do a good enough job crashing the boards. Playing alongside rebounding machine Julius Randle this may not be as much of a concern, but Zubac can still benefit from some more work in this area. Zubac has the size and athleticism to be a good rebounder, but he needs to put himself in the right positions. Thankfully, this can be developed with practice and development, similar to most of the other less advanced areas of Zubac’s game.
The two most worrisome areas in Zubac’s game that Laker fans should be concerned about is a lack of a midrange jumper and a somewhat significant injury history. Zubac had a stress fracture in his foot two years ago that he has recovered well from, but foot injuries have been notorious in destroying the careers of big men. Plus, Zubac had a minor knee injury that he just recently finished overcoming, but this is much less of a concern than his foot injury. Stress fractures in the foot are notorious for ravaging the playing careers of big men—Yao Ming is just one example—and Zubac already had one of these injuries. Transitioning from limited playing time to the rigors of the NBA is a huge difference that will put a lot of stress on Zubac’s body. This is concerning for a player that already has an injury resulting from overuse, so Zubac will have to prove that he can overcome the step up in difficulty without sustaining any injuries. However, one possible silver lining to his injury history is that Zubac really needs to work on his conditioning, possibly suggesting that his injuries were merely a result of not being in shape rather than his body’s inability to handle the pressure of significant playing time. Only time will tell, but in the short term, Zubac will need to prove his durability before he can be relied upon to play regular minutes over the course of a long season.
Although some people were expecting Zubac to be a draft-and-stash prospect, Zubac wants to play in the NBA and he has an out in his contract that could allow him to play for the Lakers this season. GM Mitch Kupchak has not definitively said whether or not this is going to happen, but the possibility of him being an NBA player this year is higher than most initially believed. Many scouts have compared Zubac to a future Marc Gasol, but the Croatian’s deficiencies defensively and his poor mid-range shooting do not suggest that this comparison is all that accurate. Instead, I see Zubac as a player more in the mold of an Al Jefferson type player. Jefferson is an effective scorer from the post that scores a vast majority of his points right around the basket. He has begun to develop more of a mid-range jumper as he has matured, but Jefferson was initially a player that thrived within 5-7 feet from the rim. Furthermore, both Jefferson and Zubac are not known for their defense, but thanks to their good physical makeup, both players are decent defenders that use their physicality to body up post scorers. The only area where the two differ is in rebounding as Jefferson has always been good on the glass whereas Zubac needs to improve this part of his game. Obviously, Zubac has a long way to go before becoming a player of Jefferson’s caliber, but the potential is there for him to become a good scoring big man. It will likely be a few years before Zubac is ready to play big minutes especially if the Lakers are competitive, but if developed properly, the Croatian has the potential to be a solid center that contributes mostly on the offense but is not a liability defensively. For an early second round pick, Zubac was a very good selection.