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2019-20 Clippers report card: Ivica Zubac

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The young center is just getting better.

Denver Nuggets v Los Angeles Clippers - Game Two Photo by Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images

Key information:

Name: Ivica Zubac

Age: 23

Years in NBA: 4

Key stats: Averaged 8.3 points, 7.5 rebounds and just under a block per game while playing a career-high 72 games during the regular season.

Future contract status: Will be entering the second season of a four-year deal in 2020-21. Next season he’s due to make $7 million.

Summary:

The Croatian big man continued his development in 2019-20, starting nearly every game of the regular season as the 5 and showing improvement. Most notably, this season and during the league shutdown because of the coronavirus, Zubac worked hard on his body and fitness, with gains in that department boding well for the future.

In the moment, Zubac may have been the starting center, but his workload remained low, averaging just 18.4 minutes per night. By season’s end, there was a widespread belief Zubac was being held back by Doc Rivers, and Rivers’ lack of response in giving Zubac more playing time at a critical point was cited as one of the reasons for the Clippers’ disappointing playoff performance. In many respects, Zubac’s story is of growth and as-yet untapped potential.

Strengths:

Zubac is a traditional center who does most of his work in the paint. He led the team in rebounding and won a few second tries on the offensive end each game. His field goal percentage of 61.3 was tops on the team among the main core. He was third on the team in all categories of win shares, fourth in VORP, and he led the entire NBA in offensive rebound percentage and offensive rating, per Basketball Reference.

Zubac was used offensively on pick-and-rolls, slashing to the basket after setting the picks and getting easy buckets at the rim. His defense was predictably also focused in the paint, with his rim protection elite through the season.

The big man was a project when he was drafted by the Los Angeles Lakers in 2016 but he’s shown improvement year-over-year, and he’s the latest version of Lamar Odom in Los Angeles, a player who both fanbases in the city wholeheartedly appreciate. Lakers fans were still pining for Zubac to be playing for them this season, while again, Rivers seemed hesitant to give him more playing time in spite of his obvious improvement and potential on the Clippers.

Weaknesses:

Unlike many European big men, he’s never been a 3-point threat in the NBA and has yet to attempt one for the Clippers. You can argue 3-point ability is a bonus, not a requirement at the center position, but in this version of the NBA, having a big man capable of attempting shots from outside, both to space the floor and help clear the paint, is valuable.

He could perhaps push up his free throw percentage a bit. He shot 75 percent last season, which is good compared to most centers, but becoming more automatic from the free throw line can certainly come in handy at crunch time.

The primary question is really wondering what Zubac’s ceiling is in the NBA. The prevalent view that he didn’t get as much playing time as he deserved may be accurate, that Rivers held the reins far too tightly on the promising center and ultimately hurt the team in the process. The flip side is perhaps Rivers thinks Zubac was nearing his ceiling already, and the promise everyone has projected for the big man isn’t as promising as we figured. Next season, we’ll likely get a better sense with Zubac playing for a new head coach.

Future with the Clippers:

While Zubac obviously has a few more years on his current contract, he is likely a core piece of the team, but it’s far from guaranteed. With the Clippers aiming to make some upgrades, Zubac is quite possibly their best trade asset, but the team is reportedly not interested in moving him. Kawhi Leonard seems to like playing with Zubac, and if the team’s best player and main untouchable likes a teammate, that’s probably a good sign for his future. Still, with Tyronn Lue now the head coach and the team seeking a player or two to help push them over the top in their title aspirations, Zubac could be on the move. It all depends on how highly the Clips rate him moving forward and how much they’ll need to give up in a trade. But being perhaps the best trade asset on the team is itself a signal that the future looks bright for Zubac, regardless of where he plays.

Overall grade: A-

Zubac did what was asked of him in 2019-20. He transformed his body and got rid of the baby fat. He was a dominant presence at the rim on both ends of the court. He looks like he can still get quite a bit better, and left just about everyone wanting more. The Clippers seem to have their starting center of the present and future right here.