Ivica Zubac Could Be the Lakers' Greatest Mistake

Trading Ivica Zubac was just one in a series of baffling moves by the Los Angeles Lakers under Magic Johnson and Rob Pelinka. With the Croatian big man playing a starting role for the crosstown LA Clippers, he could make Magic and company regret it.

The Los Angeles Lakers have been no strangers to baffling moves over the last few years. From Timofey Mozgov’s head-scratching contract during the cap spike of 2016 to the more recent D’Angelo Russell trade that coincidentally included the Russian big man, the dysfunction has spanned multiple front office regimes and looks to continue after Magic Johnson’s surprising resignation.

One of the most confusing and potentially damaging moves in recent Lakers history, however, was one of Magic’s final actions: the deadline-day deal that sent Ivica Zubac and Michael Beasley across town to the Clippers in return for Mike Muscala. It never made much sense to swap a promising 21-year-old big man for a “floor spacer” six years his senior that shot around league average for his career on about two long-range attempts per game. Seeing that young center start for a playoff team in the same building while the Lakers are stuck watching from home just added insult to injury.

Of course, to say that Zubac is the starter for the Clippers is a bit misleading – while he does start on the court for Doc Rivers’ team, he plays less than backup center Montrezl Harrell, who finishes games while Zubac watches from the bench. In the Clips’ recent comeback against Golden State, Harrell played 33 minutes off the bench while Zubac was limited to nine.

Still, that’s little consolation. While Rob Pelinka and Jeanie Buss scramble to rebuild the Lakers, Staples Center stays busy hosting postseason play with a promising young player in tow. But what exactly do the Clippers have in Zubac?

Rim Protection and Defense

He’s not on the same level as some of his young peers like Myles Turner or Mitchell Robinson, but Zubac has quietly established himself as an impact defender. His career average of .7 blocks per game pales in comparison to the contemporaries that have grabbed headlines this season, but that number doesn’t tell the whole story. Zubac plays less than Turner and Robinson, and his impact on opposing offenses goes beyond actually swatting the ball. Though he lacks the raw athleticism and other physical tools that most elite defenders possess, the Croatian’s 7-foot-1 frame (with a 7-foot-4 wingspan) makes him an imposing figure at the rim. It’s that size combined with a good sense of timing that makes him a successful defender.

In the above clip, Zubac hangs way back on a Grayson Allen/Ekpe Udoh pick-and-roll, cutting Allen off from getting to the rim. When Udoh gets the ball back and takes one hard dribble, Zubac shuffles his feet and times his jump perfectly to just get up to Udoh’s shot.

The fundamentals on display are how Zubac has managed to improve the Clippers defense despite a relative lack of raw stats. His lack of speed and tendency to foul too much – he’s just outside the top-20 in fouls per 100 possessions, per Basketball-Reference – limit his time and effectiveness in certain matchups, but the numbers clearly show that he improves his team’s defense while he plays:

  Defensive Rating Opponent EFG% Opponent FTA Rate Opponent TOV%
On Court 96.3 53.10% 0.141 22.5
Off Court 126.3 62.20% 0.378 15.2

His rebounding also makes an impact, especially defensively. He boxes out and ends opposing possessions consistently, ranking in the 91st percentile in defensive rebounding percentage, according to Cleaning the Glass. By protecting the rim and limiting opponents to one shot, Zubac allows the rest of his team to play aggressive defense knowing that he’s acting as a safety net behind them. He’s not exactly an All-Defense-level player, but he doesn’t need to be. He’s good enough at his two primary skills, rebounding, and defense, to be an effective player.

Offensive Struggles

As effective as he can be defensively, there has to be a reason that Zubac has never carved out too big a role in his first three seasons. Of course, at just 22 years old, his rawness and tendency to foul have certainly played a role in limiting his time. And again, he’s not the quickest player – smaller teams can run him off the floor; the Clippers and their base defensive strategy of dropping back on screens are a perfect match for Zubac’s brand of lumbering but intelligent defense.

Of course, there’s another explanation for his limited time. Simply put, Zubac hasn’t found his place on offense. As effective as he is at using his size on defense, he hasn’t shown an ability to do the same on the other end of the floor. Here he is getting blocked by Alfonzo McKinnie, a second-year bench player five inches shorter than him:

That should either be an easy dunk or a pass to the wide-open Shai Gilgeous-Alexander in the corner. Instead, it’s a block. In this play, Zubac does well to get the offensive rebound, only to bring it down low enough for the 6-foot-3 Steph Curry to swipe it away:

Zubac plays smaller than 7-foot-1 on offense, and without any go-to post moves, it severely limits his effectiveness. He shoots only 57% at the rim, a dreadful number for a big man. A player can’t be a major contributor on a contender with offense that bad unless he’s in talks for Defensive Player of the Year, and Zubac isn’t near that level. 

Where does Zubac go from here? 

It's silly to say things like that about the second-best center on a team that snuck into the postseason; nobody's expecting him to play like that at this stage of his career -- there's a reason Harrell plays more for the Clippers, after all.

That raises interesting questions for the Croatian’s future. A restricted free agent this summer, Zubac may not be in the Clips’ long-term plans: Harrell is clearly the guy at center, and while the team has been successful bringing him and Lou Williams off the bench, the conventional wisdom suggests that a team needs to start their two best players to compete at the highest level. It’s easy to see Zubac staying on and eventually moving to the bench as a change-of-pace backup, but it’s just as easy to see another team talking themselves into a young seven-footer as their starter.

As the league continues to covet athletic, mobile big men, Zubac becomes less valuable. But there will always be a place for a smart, effective rim defender, even if it that place smaller now than it was 10 years ago. As he continues to get smarter about positioning and not fouling, his defense will only improve – especially if he can find a way to get just a bit quicker. Offensively, all it takes is one consistent move: a post hook, a mid-range jumper, or even just the ability to consistently finish at the rim. If Zubac develops that, he improves to a mediocre offensive player and becomes much more viable as a starting center.

Again: Zubac is 22 years old. He has plenty of time to figure things out offensively and figure out some of those defensive shortcomings. He’s already shown enough to make the Lakers’ decision to cut ties at the deadline look silly. It’s up to Zubac himself if he wants to make his former team regret that choice for years to come.

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