Next up for our 2021-2022 player season preview series is the newly minted longest-tenured Clipper on the roster, Ivica Zubac.
Weight: 240 pounds
Age: 24 (turns 25 on March 18)
Years in NBA: 5
Regular Season: 9.0 points, 7.2 rebounds, 1.3 assists and 0.3 steals in 22.3 minutes per game across 72 games played with 65.4/25/78.9 shooting splits (69.3 TS%)
Playoffs: 6.3 points, 5.8 rebounds, 0.4 assists, and 0.1 steals in 17.7 minutes per game across 17 games played with 59.6/0/79.6 shooting splits (68.1 TS%)
Contract Status: Guaranteed $7.51M deal for 2021-2022 and a $7.51M team option for 2022-2023
Heading into the new season, Zubac is the Clipper starter with the least amount of adjustments needed to be made with his role. Individually, Zubac mostly needs to just pick up right where he left off, as compared to the likes of Reggie Jackson, Paul George and Marcus Morris Sr., who will each have more of the offense ran through them moving forward.
While Zubac will pretty much be doing the same things as he did last year, that isn’t to say that there isn’t room for him to grow. With Kawhi Leonard out, the message has been made clear early on from the team that their level of play must step up due to the tighter margin of error they have to work with.
It’s year six for me now. It’s time to take the next step and bring it every night: talking on defense, helping guys on the floor, bring the energy and being aggressive, finishing every night. I think that’s the next step for me, for us as a team, just being consistent every night.”Ivica Zubac on the next step in the evolution of his career
As such, the main question mark with the 24-year-old 7-footer is what exactly does that “next step” look like for him. Although both Zubac and Luke Kennard’s eyes lit up on media day at the prospect of the Croatian center taking threes with regularity this year, the Clippers’ coaching staff almost assuredly won’t be asking him to do that. A realistic step up for Zubac this year would revolve around him covering up more of the common slip-ups on defense that occur nightly, and upping the traditional big man stats that come with taking care of the dirty work. Both of which, however, remain highly dependent on a player’s environment and opportunity. Barring a seismic move that includes a certain non-shooting playmaker from Philadelphia, Zubac is locked into a starting spot, with two factors that could potentially dampen his playing time — (1) the emergence of Isaiah Hartenstein/Harry Giles III or Justise Winslow at the five and (2) small ball. With the latter, Marcus Morris Sr. mentioned that although he will be finishing some games this year as a small-ball center like he did in the playoffs, we won’t be seeing a lot of that early as the Clippers and Tyronn Lue look to hold onto “some cards” for later on.
Ever since Zubac notoriously came to LAC for a bag of chips at the trade deadline back in February 2019, he’s been beloved from those within the organization and in the Staples Center rows alike for good reason — night in and night out, he’s been a star in his role. Transforming his body over the summers and earning the locker room’s respect on teams full of expectations and all-time defensive minds since the 213 duo arrived, Zubac has well cemented himself as a starting-caliber five in the NBA.
As demonstrated once again when he gained the starting role last season after Serge Ibaka went down, Zubac is a game-changing defensive presence in the regular season. From glass cleaner to rim protector, lob threat, short-roll facilitator and occasional Kareem Abdul-Jabbar sky hook clone, there’s a reason why people who watch the Clippers can’t get enough of having Zubac on the floor. It’s also impossible to gloss over the iron man Zubac has been throughout his career. As they say in sports, the best ability is availability, and Zubac has yet to miss a regular season game due to injury as a Clipper.
When Lue was elevated last year as the club’s new head coach, one of the main draws for his hiring was his proven track record of not being afraid to go to different lineups depending on the matchup, no matter who was on his team — a la Kevin Love. As mentioned by Zubac on media day, last year’s playoff run embedded that winning mindset in him as well as the whole Clipper locker room.
We all know the playoffs are about adjustments and about the matchups. Not every series is going to be yours. Sometimes you’re going to have a smaller role, sometimes you’re going to have a bigger role, but you always gotta respond. You always gotta be ready. I feel like our team did a great job of that.Ivica Zubac on learning from last year’s playoff run
A lot of the weaknesses for Zubac remain things that most guys of his size can’t be expected to control on the court. Early on, it will be important to survey the fit of Zubac alongside Eric Bledsoe, who some already seem to be writing off as a poor fit due to the shooting concerns. Additionally, with Lue putting an emphasis on spacing, pushing the tempo and 2-on-2 pick-and-roll defense so far in training camp, it sounds like Zubac’s calling cards aren’t exactly what the Kawhi-less Clippers’ identity will be centered on in the biggest moments of games this year. Aside from this, some things Zubac can continue to clean up and be more consistent in nightly remain staying out of foul trouble, showcasing tremendous hands and shooting touch, and finishing strong through contact.
With Ibaka continuing to take his recovery day-by-day without a timetable, it’s a godsend for the Clippers that Ivica Zubac is reportedly feeling 100% back from that MCL sprain he suffered back in June. While he likely won’t be depended on to close the highest intensity of games, especially in the playoffs, Zubac unquestionably will be a major pillar that the Clippers will need to lean on in order to get to that point. With the marriage buff and new virtual face scan buff on his side, Zubac enters the 2021-22 season once again as one of the best value contracts in the NBA, and a fan favorite for the red and blue.