On September 12, the guy typing this published a piece called “Can The Clippers Depend on Ivica Zubac As Their Starting Center?” In this piece I pondered if the Clippers were right to give Zubac a four-year, $28 million deal. This was a young kid after all who, while showing consistent improvement and helping turn around the Clippers season after acquiring him and a few others at the trade deadline, got played out of the the playoff series against the Warriors and was never trusted to put in more than 20 minutes a game when moved to the Clips.
$28 million may not seem like a lot of money in today’s NBA, but giving someone so young and unproven (in the context of last years playoff series) $7 million a year, who may not wholly improve your team on a night-to-night basis, is what bad teams do. This is the new, smart, steady Clippers front-office. They don’t make decisions with their heart, they lead with their noggin. Some Clipper fans (including, again, the pale white guy typing this) wanted the Clips to maybe try their luck with other free-agent bigs like Joakim Noah, who we now know was hurt this summer — a reason his scheduled workout with the Clippers was cancelled. If you looked at this team on paper before the start of the year, the only deficiency was at the center position. After Zu, you have an offensive beast in Montrezl Harrell who, while always giving 110%, is only 6’8” on a good day, and has had trouble in the past defending traditional centers.
In today’s NBA, the traditional big has gone the way of TiVo or pay phones. Instead you have these seven-footers who can put the ball on the floor, shoot 38% from three, and defend 3-5 (or at least you hope for that). Zu fits more of the old school, VCR center mold. Teams with this type of center — Rockets, Jazz, Pistons etc. — have seen some success, but have seen their centers (and their various deficiencies) be wrecked by teams that isolate them on the offensive end and stay away from them when they play defense, thus limiting their impact. The Clippers, and their Larry O’B or bust aspirations, can’t afford this type of play from any player, let alone the man in the middle. Last season, this was Zubac’s fate. Only a few months later, I don’t think anyone can be faulted for thinking Zu maybe wasn’t ready to be the Clips starting center in a season where it’s rings or nothing.
So far this season, Zubac is rewriting his own narrative. Yes, it’s still a small sample size, but Zubac has turned into a defensive menace inside this season and has improved in almost every facet offensively.
Let’s start with some defensive stats to back this claim up. As of Nov. 5, Zubac has a defensive rating of 96.3 (When paired with starters Patrick Beverley and Kawhi Leonard, that super low defensive rating gets even lower to 92.) and a net rating of 8.6. Outside of averaging 9.5 minutes in 43 games for a tanking Lakers squad two seasons ago, those are both career highs. He is doing this against centers like LaMarcus Aldridge, Rudy Gobert, and Cody Zeller, who shot a combined 5-for-17 when Zu was guarding them.
Overall, Zu is limiting opposing players to 36.7% from the field. On shots less than six feet, Zu is limiting opponents to an astounding 41.4%. When compared to what his opponents usually shoot from that range (61.8%), that’s insane. Overall, opponents shoot 11.8% worse when Zu is matched up with them. On two pointers, 19.3% worse. Shots less than 10 feet? 20% worse.
This goes to show that Zu’s defensive impact, with his 7’1” frame and 7’4” wingspan, is borderline diabolical. He is straight up shutting other players down (not to mention averaging a career high in blocks with 1.6 and setting a career high with five against the Hornets) and negating their effectiveness.
The cool thing about all this…us Clipper fans already knew how effective Zu was on defense. We (or maybe, I) didn’t know he’d be this good so far this season, but his mere presence inside last season led a turnaround for the Clips that got them into the playoffs. Last season the starting five of Bev-Sham-Shai (miss ya buddy)-Gallo (also miss ya bud)-Zu posted a 103.4 DRtg and held a +9.3 net rating. His impact in a Clips uniform has been substantial thus far, and the defensive end is where most of it lies.
However, offensively, Zubac is picking up as well. He’s posting an offensive rating of 104.9 thus far this season, true, and has a seemingly bare bones offensive line of 9 points and 6.3 rebounds. That shifts when noting that’s only in 16.6 minutes averaged, and on an incredible 71% shooting from the field. You stretch those numbers out to 36 and you have an All-Star stat line of 19.6 points, 13.7 rebounds and 3.4 blocks. Zubac is borderline putting up 17-18 Montrezl Harrell numbers (only player that season to average 11 or more points in 17 mins or less). It’s awesome to see. It’s also cool to see him expand his range a bit too.
Zubac has hit both of his shots deemed “Catch and shoot” or “pull-ups” by stats.nba.com. While this is the epitome of small sample size, Zu was working on expanding his range all summer, and if he can consistently knock down his shot from outside of the paint, it adds a fun wrinkle into the Clips offense and gives them more variety in sets.
Zu has had an increased profile on the offensive end (especially early on in games) for LA with the addition of Kawhi Leonard. Zu has turned into a genuine pick-and-roll threat, just as Kawhi has flexed his newfound ability to pass so far this season. Of all players who average minimum 10 minutes a game, Zubac is 8th in the league in scoring frequency out of the pick-and-roll at 64.3%. His and-one frequency out of this same set is 7th in the NBA. Not only is Zu finishing form the PnR (which was a concern last season) but finishing through contact as well (check out his first two plays from the Warriors game below for evidence).
Last season, Zu had trouble in this offensive format. His hands didn’t always seem to be in the right places for passes and when he did get passes in his pocket, he wouldn’t always corral them. He also seemed to misjudge the space he had on rolls and misjudge spacing in general, leading to some build up on drives. This season, Zu has been much better about catching passes — especially some tricky ones from Kawhi — and also has better spatial awareness.
He’s finding small pockets of space to rise and score that he wasn’t finding last year. He’s also doing a good job of being active in transition and running the floor, sometimes beating an opposing center down the floor for an easy bucket.
Of course, all of this is a tad anecdotal seven games into the season. Zubac is still a young dude with a ways to go. However, he doesn’t really have a choice when it comes to rapid progression. The Clippers want to (and believe) they can win rings right now. They don’t have any reason not to believe this with two of the best two-way players in the league in Paul George and Kawhi. Yes, the center position isn’t completely invulnerable or shored up. BUT, it is cool to see Zubac already improving seven games in and showing that he can step up. I personally am in favor of giving Zubac more like 20-22 minutes a game, given his defensive excellence and efficient offensive. We will see if his minutes rise throughout the year. For right now, let’s enjoy Zubacca making life for opposing offenses hell and dunking on some fools on the other end.