Welcome to our 2021-22 Clips Nation season preview series, where we’re digging into something that interests us about each player for this coming season. Next up, what is Ivica Zubac’s next step?
True story: when I interviewed for this role as a Clips Nation contributor, I said that Ivica Zubac was my personal favorite Clipper on the current roster. Ever since that fateful day when it was announced that the Clippers had acquired him in a trade for Mike Muscala, I loved his attitude, his hard screens, and his defensive presence. Clippers fans saw a young man come in that first day and since grow into a mature adult.
Now 24 years old, with five years of NBA experience under his belt, and squarely filling out his sturdy and intimidating figure, it’s time to start cashing in on that potential. There’s been subtle yet noticeable improvements in his game these last two and a half years, but still a far cry from greatness.
In his five years in the league, Zubac has never averaged more than nine points a game or more than eight rebounds a game. He has been close for the last three seasons, but has never managed to average a full block per game. And until last year, he had never averaged more than 20 minutes a game through an entire season. Those last few sentences are undoubtedly linked, and if he were to play more minutes, his production would almost certainly increase as well. But what does it say that a coach has never trusted him with more minutes than that of a role player?
In almost every aspect of the word, Zubac is dependable. Up until the MCL injury last playoffs, he’s been the Clippers best candidate for the iron man award, having not missed a regular-season game in either of his last two seasons with the Clippers. The expectations and production of his game has been mostly consistent as well: he’s a defensive anchor, a good rebounder, and a serviceable offensive threat. A likely expectation of the 2021 Zubac is incremental upgrades on all those fronts. Maybe he does break the 25 minutes per game mark. Maybe he posts season averages of more than 10 points, more than nine rebounds, and finally a full block per game.
There is, however, a realistic timeline out in the multiverse in which, by the time the 2021-22 regular season is over, Zubac has lost the starting spot he currently enjoys. Whether to a (finally) healthy Serge Ibaka, or even an up-and-coming Isaiah Hartenstein (ICYMI, Hart and the advanced stats he has produced has quite a fanbase on reddit), Zubac’s role on the Clippers is no guarantee.
This is especially true this year, where Zubac’s contract beyond this season is not completely guaranteed (and instead includes a team option for the 2022-23 season). On this current Clippers team, helmed by Ty Lue and his proclivity for experimentation, it’s not out of the question that Zubac might be back in a bench role to end the season, or that he might even be shipped off to another team sometime before the trade deadline.
Then again, there’s another possible timeline out there that Zubac finally breaks through the developmental barrier and becomes the rim-running, shot-disrupting dominant big that Kawhi Leonard predicted Zu has the potential to be. He has all the tools necessary to be a taller, bigger, albeit less athletic, Clint Capela-type player. I have no doubt that if Zubac were healthy to end the season, the Clippers-Suns series would have been at least a game or two longer.
Even in the modern NBA, there’s value in having a seven-footer who knows he’s a seven-footer on your team. And one more healthy offseason and one more year to get familiar with his teammates and Lue’s offense might just be what he needed.
Niceties such as expanding his range on offense, improving court vision out of the short roll, or increasing his awareness in help defense are achievable targets this year, but the primary focus for Zubac to continue addressing would be his conditioning. Being able to be even more aggressive and get even more physical, either on the boards or making other, similar, hustle plays, for even longer stretches of time, would go a long ways towards cementing a major role in the Lue’s system.
Stuff like this makes me wonder how helpful Bledsoe will be for a guy like Zubac. pic.twitter.com/1s6D7kbSVR— Justin Russo (@FlyByKnite) October 13, 2021
As a fan, I hope the 2021-22 season follows the second timeline. It’s easiest to expect more of the same, but something about this season feels different. Maybe it’s the absence of pressure to be a title contender that allows Lue even more freedom to take risks and shake things up, even if that means relegating Zubac back to the bench. Maybe it’s Zubac’s age and recent marriage (congrats by the way!) inspiring him to take that next leap. Maybe it’s just playing with an athletic, pure slashing point guard like Bledsoe for the first time in his career.
Zubac seasons are usually easy to predict, with a higher floor and a lower ceiling than others on the Clippers team; the name of the game is “incremental progress”. Barring any injuries or other unforeseen radical changes, that should again be the case for Ivica Zubac this year.