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Clippers In Review: Incremental progress for Zubac this season

The Clipper most dependable seven footer was a steadying force this season, will he be next season?

NBA: Washington Wizards at Los Angeles Clippers Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

He’s been lauded by his teammates. He’s been praised by the front office. He’s been trusted by the fanbase. Ivica Zubac, the last remaining player from the 2018-2019 Cinderella Clippers team, continued to deliver this season.

In one word, his game could be described as “dependable”.

Perhaps one of the least exciting players on this roster with perhaps a less dramatic storyline, Zubac nevertheless continued to show up for the Clippers. To wit, over his last three seasons with the team, Zubac has played in 220 out of 226 games, and started in 179 of those. He may be the most dependable heartbeat of the Clippers core, at least in terms of staying on the floor.

And this season, he continued to do just that. In a season strangled by the injury bug and turbulent lineups, Zubac’s 10 points, eight rebounds, stifling defense, and brick wall screens could be counted on, night in and night out. He posted increases in his season averages, over the 2020-2021 season, to the tune of 1.3 points per game, 1.3 rebounds per game, and 0.1 blocks per game. He also led his team in rebounding, and was in the top five on his team in terms of defensive rating, effective field goal percentage, and true shooting percentage. He was, however, bottom five on the team in terms of net rating and pace.

The Zubac story is one of incremental progression. The 25 year old, finishing his sixth year in the league and Los Angeles’ biggest body, has yet to make the singular and shocking jump in his game. Instead, it’s been a series of small shuffles that Zubac took to samba his way into the rotation.

Each year he has gotten better, slowly but surely. The emphasis for the Clippers front office entering this offseason, however, has been that first adjective — slowly. There’s no doubt in my mind, as both a Clippers and a Zubac fan, that he is a starting caliber center in today’s league. And I have strong confidence that his true ceiling is far higher than that. His defensive presence is formidable, his offensive screen-setting and rim-running is necessary, and his value to any team is note-worthy. And I cannot stress this enough, but he is still young. He was born after both Luke Kennard and Terance Mann, and his development still has room to grow. Whether the team can afford to wait for him to develop into his true potential, however, is the more relevant question.

In terms of future salary, the Clippers own the team option for Zubac next season (in which he’d be paid $7.5 million) in the final year of an extension he signed in 2019.

The Clippers could give Zubac their vote of confidence, pick up their team option, and perhaps even offer him an extension and a pay raise. After all, he’s already a valuable contributor in the rotation, and he’s still young. Best case scenario, next season is the breakout party that we’ve been hoping for these past two seasons. Worst case scenario, he takes his annual mini-step forward and maybe pushes averages closer to 11 points and nine rebounds a game, next season.

The Clippers could also use him as a trade piece. He’s young, he’s valuable, and for a team with few draft picks to their name, Zubac could be the sweetener in a deal, packaged with a larger contract like Marcus Morris Sr.’s, to fetch a player that may be a more immediate contributor. Especially if Los Angeles is able to retain the talents of Isaiah Hartenstein (who is an unrestricted free agent this offseason and whose strong play has made him an invaluable member of the rotation, this season), Zubac, one of the most dependable presences for the Clippers, may find his long-term future with the team becoming less and less certain.