Name: Ivica Zubac
Years in NBA: 3
Key Stats: In 26 regular-season games (25 starts), Zubac averaged 9.4 points and 7.7 rebounds on 53.8 percent shooting in 20.2 minutes per game. He played 39 minutes in four playoff games (3 starts), averaging 5 points and 5.5 rebounds per game.
2018-2019 Salary: $1,544,951
Future Contract Status: Zubac is a restricted free agent. The Clippers can pay him up to the max provided they extend him a $1,931,189 qualifying offer (which also amounts to his cap hold) this summer.
The Clippers received a gift from the basketball gods at the trade deadline when the Lakers decided they needed a stretch big and traded their young center of the future across the hall in exchange for Mike Muscala. The Clippers immediately inserted Zubac — who was coincidentally already in Boston on a Lakers’ road trip — into the starting lineup, had a season-saving win in a 28-point comeback against the Celtics, and rode their new center to a 18-9 finish to the regular season and playoff berth. Zubac helped stabilize the five position after Marcin Gortat and Boban Marjanovic had showcased their warts, and he now appears to be part of the future for another LA team.
Zubac didn’t end the season with the same amount of the fanfare that he arrived with after the first-round series against Golden State rudely exposed many of his limitations. The Clippers were forced to bench him in favor of JaMychal Green, to great effect, and most of the counting stats Zubac accumulated in the playoffs came in one of the great garbage-time quarters in NBA history, the fourth period of Game 3. Nevertheless, at age 22, the young Croatian center has shown significant growth in his three-year NBA career and figures to continue to improve going forward.
Ivica Zubac is 7-foot-1 and fairly mobile, and he instantly upgraded LA’s defense once he joined the team. He has long arms and likes to protect the basket, and during the regular season, he provides a strong deterrent to opposing players trying to score in the paint. Opposing teams took fewer shots at the rim, and from three, while Zubac was in the game, and the Clippers were 7.6 points per 100 possessions better on defense with him on the floor, per Cleaning the Glass. He is generally active on defense and unafraid of getting posterized, so he puts himself in position to block a lot of shots.
As Patrick Beverley put it, “He protects the rim. He’s not one of those guys, he doesn’t care about getting dunked on, he goes after everything and that’s all we need. Pressure from me and Shai, send them into Zu, Zu cleans it up, rebounds. Good hands, big body, good screens, he’s a big piece of what we’re trying to do over here, and we thank the Lakers, we appreciate it.”
On offense, Zubac likes to create highlights as well, and he unleashed some of the more fun dunks the Clippers had this season. He enjoy setting high picks and then rolling hard to the basket, which is exactly what Doc Rivers wants out of his bigs, and he showed good touch on his floaters. Zubac is also a better passer than expected for his position, with an assist percentage of 11.1%. He is a good free throw shooter, too, finishing at 80 percent for the season.
In general, the center position was something of a tire fire before the trade deadline for the Clippers. Gortat was aging and took awhile to settle into his role as a roll man instead of popping off of picks. He also provided little to no defensive resistance. Boban was hard to play in most matchups, and it was a constant struggle trying to figure out how to derive his maximum utility. Then came Zubac, who was easily plug-and-playable, didn’t demand the ball, and genuinely enjoyed being on a winning team. He didn’t reinvent the wheel as a five, but he didn’t have to, just making simple plays and providing 20 competent minutes.
Zubac was a pretty efficient scorer for the Lakers, but that evaporated once he switched teams. Potentially due to his hand injuries, Zubac had significant difficulty finishing around the basket, unless he was dunking the ball, and he doesn’t provide much scoring presence outside of the paint. Even though he loves rolling hard the basket, those plays only yield 1.00 points per possession, according to NBA.com. He was even worse on post-ups, averaging 0.84 points per possession.
He also made a number of mental mistakes on defense, which were magnified in the playoffs. And that’s where Zubac’s weaknesses really shone through. To borrow the parlance of LA’s playoff opponent, Zubac seemed to be an 82-game player, one who did fine against offensive and defensive systems that didn’t specifically target him, but not a 16-game player who could ball out against any matchup.
Overall Season Grade: B
The way the Clippers got Ivica Zubac really should make him an A-plus player. Once we factor in his play, he gets brought down to a B. He was a solid defensive center during the regular season who became almost useless in the playoffs, and with LA working towards becoming a contender, that matters. Still, he was a breath of fresh air when he joined the team, and there’s no way the Clippers starting lineup could have performed as well to end the season with Gortat in his place.
Future with the Clippers:
The lasting impression the rest of the league has of Zubac is likely him being played off of the floor against the Warriors, which could serve to depress his market value. That makes it overwhelmingly likely that the Clippers will retain him. He has gained valuable experience in their system, formed a bond with this team, and will be inexpensive to keep around. The Clippers could even sign him to a bloated one-year deal to use as salary ballast once they’ve already figured out the rest of their roster. Zubac made an immediate impact on the Clippers, and he has likely earned an extended stay because of it.