Serge Ibaka and Ivica Zubac are inching closer to their potential after an underwhelming start to the season.

All of us were caught off-guard by coach Ty Lue’s decision ahead of the season to bring Zubac off the bench, and maybe Zu was surprised as well — a logical explanation for his unusually uneven play throughout the first quarter of the season. Ten games into the season, Zu often struggled to make his mark in his new role. He struggled with his hands — constantly fumbling passes while in scoring positions, and averaged just 3.8 rebounds per game, including a zero-rebound effort in 19 minutes against the Denver Nuggets. Not to mention he was being outworked for offensive boards by guys like James Johnson and Derrick Favors. Perhaps the most inexcusable performance came when Zu was dominated on national television by Golden State Warriors forward Eric Paschall, repeatedly failing to bother the 6’7 forward at the rim. He finished with a team worst -26 and was the victim of three-consecutive Paschall baskets in the third quarter.

Non-coincidentally, Zu’s play began to pick up after the ten-game mark when the bench unit was altered. The three-guard lineup experiment ended, and Ty Lue opted to keep an additional wing defender on the court with the second unit. Zubac has had much more of an impact on games since then, as he has not had to over-extend himself in efforts to compensate for others’ defensive lapses.

In recent weeks, Zubac has acknowledged his play can keep improving in this new role of his, and as long as that self-awareness is there, the effort and results will follow. “I can do much more than my game is showing right now,” said Zubac following a 10-point, 11-rebound outing against the Oklahoma City Thunder. “But I’m going to keep doing my role the best I can.” 

Despite his stats being only slightly down from the prior season, Serge Ibaka had quietly been as underwhelming as Zubac for much of the first month of play — which is a credit to how good of a player Serge is and how important of a player he could be for this team. He moved a lot slower than expected on the defensive end, lunged past shot-fakes on the perimeter, and generally wasn’t very noticeable on the court when his three-point shot wasn’t falling. The shortcomings were inevitable, though, having joined a new team and having to learn players. For instance, it’s taken a while for Ibaka to develop pick-and-roll/pick-and-pop chemistry with the Clippers’ playmakers. While he’s been effective around the rim, Ibaka has been a bit too inconsistent with his reads — often rolling when he should have popped, which has created spacing issues for the ball-handlers and forced them to make tough-angled passes.

After being propelled by a recent two-game stint agains his former Oklahoma City Thunder team, in which Ibaka averaged 17 points on 14/16 shooting from against a variety of fringe-caliber opposing centers, Ibaka is rounding into the player we thought we’d see. On this current six-game road trip alone, Ibaka has been reading defenses much better. He’s been defended by opposing big men who don’t switch onto ball-handlers in pick-and-roll situations, and as a result of these favorable matchups, Ibaka has been making the right reads to pop for open three-pointers.

The “Clippers need a true point guard” crowd has had to open their eyes and observe how well this team is moving the ball around without one, enabling them to generate great offensive possessions consistently. In that regard, perhaps the most surprising and glaring development over the first quarter of this season has been the IQ of both Ibaka and Zubac as pick-and-roll passers.

Their ability to make plays for others has allowed for the team’s two superstars to play very efficiently, making them one of the better offenses in the NBA to this point.

It goes without saying how important each player is to this team. In order to reach the promised land, both Ivica Zubac and Serge Ibaka will be relied upon to contribute valuable minutes against the elite centers in each conference. And as they develop in their roles throughout the season, their versatility on both ends of the court should continue to contribute to winning.

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