Age: 23 (birthday on March 18)
Years in NBA: 3, prior to the 2019-20 season
Key Stats: 8.0 points, 7.2 rebounds, 1.1 assists, and 0.2 steals in 18.1 minutes per game across 64 games played. Field goal percentage: 60.1. Free throw percentage: 75.9.
Contract Status: In the first year of a four-year, $28M contract with a team option in the final year (2022-2023).
The Clippers signed Ivica Zubac to a four-year 28 million contract in July 2019, demonstrating their belief in the young Croatian and his ability to develop into a solid big man. Zubac averaged a decent 7.7 rebounds and 9.4 points on 53.8 percent shooting in 26 games for the Clippers in the 2018-19 season, logging just over 20 minutes per game. While he struggled in the post-season series against the two-time defending champion Golden State Warriors, it did not sour the Clippers on the center’s potential. The franchise believes the future is bright for Zubac.
Entering the 2019-20 season, expectations for Zubac were consistent with that of a traditional, old school center: rebound, protect the rim, and set solid screens. With the acquisition of Kawhi Leonard and Paul George, the pressure to score was not going to be significant. Any points Zubac could contribute off offensive rebounds or by rolling to the basket were going to be the idiomatic icing on the cake.
Zubac maximized his training time in the offseason, and entered the 2019-20 season stronger, fitter, and more confident. In the 64 games played by the Clippers before the pandemic shut things down in March, Zubac averaged eight points on 60.1 percent shooting and 7.2 rebounds. That is surprisingly productive given his limited minutes (18.1 minutes per game) and the fact that he was frequently surrounded by offensive juggernauts when out on the floor. The seven-footer had an offensive rating of 131.8 (2nd in the league), and also ranked highly in offensive rebounds (11th in league with 166) and true shooting percentage (9th in the league with 64.2 percent).
Defensively, Zubac was solid and showed considerable improvement from the 2018-19 season. He was light on his feet and showed a markedly better understanding of his defensive assignments and positioning. Zubac did not back down from the more seasoned big men in the league, showing confidence beyond his years and delighting fans. His size was a clear factor in the paint; he caused opponents to shoot 17.2 percentage points worse than their regular percentage within six-feet of the basket. Although he averaged just less than one block per game, “Zublocka” certainly made his presence known around the rim and altered many a team’s offensive strategy.
Despite being fundamentally sound and reliable on both ends of the floor, Zubac did not see much time in closing quarters this season, averaging less than six minutes in the second half. Montrezl Harrell was Doc Rivers’ go-to guy down the stretch, even when he was obviously gassed. Harrell, who averaged 18.6 points and 7.1 rebounds in 27.8 minutes per game, is undeniably a better fit with the wing-focused, explosive line-ups that has been so effective for Doc in closing out games, but there were instances where leaving Zubac on the bench for extended period left many NBA enthusiasts scratching their heads.
Future with Clippers
The Clippers’ 4-year contract with Zubac has a team option in year four. If the young center does not continue to improve as anticipated, the franchise will be able to unload him without losing a lot of money.
There is a lot of upside to Zubac, however, and no reason to think he won’t develop as hoped. His defense is on the upswing. He has improved around the rim, showing a feathery touch and strong footwork. He has also expanded his game to include a pretty decent short-range jump shot, connecting on 53.5% of 43 such shots taken this season. Whether he can further expand his skill set to incorporate a 3-point threat – like Brook Lopez or Marc Gasol – has yet to be seen. Surely, broadening his array of offensive weapons will help him secure more minutes on the floor for the Clippers’ championship-contending squad.
The Clippers’ anticipated signing of veteran Joakim Noah for the remainder of the 2019-20 season will only benefit Zubac. Noah has a lot to teach the young center, particularly with regard to his developing defense. Noah achieved Defensive Player of the Year honors in 2014 and was named an NBA All Star in 2013 and 2014. A perfect mentor.
One thing is for certain. If and when the season resumes, the playoffs will be Zu’s first test …