When Ivica Zubac played in Europe, some of his American teammates spoke wistfully about what fun they had in college. It's not an experience that was ever there for Zubac, and anyway, he doesn't think the amateur system is fair. But there are times when he wonders.
"I really wish I experienced that," Zubac said. "But basketball-wise it's better to play overseas because you're playing against older guys who are physically more [advanced]. They can get you prepared for the NBA more than guys your own age."
Zubac, 20, began playing professional basketball at 15, so he has understood the business side of basketball for years. It might have helped him in the last few weeks, when Lakers personnel moves offered some good and some bad for Zubac. When the Lakers waived Andrew Bogut, they lost the only player on their roster who spoke Croatian and who had given Zubac a taste of home. When they traded Larry Nance Jr., they lost Zubac's closest friend on the team.
But both moves contributed to a professional boon for Zubac. They cleared a logjam among the Lakers bigs, and gave Zubac more of an opportunity to enter the rotation.
"When you're not playing you're not feeling good because this is what I'm doing my whole life," said Zubac, who is in his second season in the NBA. "Now when I'm finally in the rotation, everything else feels much better. Life is much better."
After hardly playing at all until this month, Zubac has played double-digit minutes in the last four games. He scored a season-high 19 points against the Minnesota Timberwolves in the last game before the All-Star break. In Atlanta on Monday, Zubac played 16 minutes 37 seconds and was one of nine Lakers to reach double figures, scoring 10 points.
"He's come a long way. What I really like, what he's been doing is being more aggressive," coach Luke Walton said. "Rolling to the rim, no matter what, whether he thinks he's getting the ball or not. Getting offensive rebounds, running into screens instead of jogging into them. So he's done a really good job of doing the little things better. He's got a great skill-set for his size, great touch, great feel for the game. But with his most recent opportunity he's done a really good job of being more physical and aggressive in what he's doing."
This kind of trajectory wasn't what Zubac expected.
He got his first start for the Lakers last season in Atlanta. Walton told him the night before he would be facing Dwight Howard and he could barely sleep that night. He showed up to the arena early, poring over his scouting report for two hours in preparation.
As soon as the game started, all that disappeared.
"Finally when I stepped on the court, I was not nervous," Zubac said. "I was feeling good. Scored my first point. First team point. Everything else was good."
Zubac played 18 minutes that November day, which was the first time he was active all season. But he wasn't part of the rotation again until mid-January. He expected the upward trend to continue into this season, but it didn't.
He was pushed down the big-man depth chart with the acquisitions of Brook Lopez and Bogut. Further complicating things was the fact that Julius Randle often played center for the Lakers. Rather than give him the few minutes he'd get in the NBA, the Lakers opted to have Zubac play on their development league team and get more opportunity for playing time.
Only since the trade deadline has Zubac reentered the rotation.
"I think there were times that he felt frustrated and didn't feel part of [the team]," Walton said. "But give him credit for sticking with it and, now that his opportunity's here, playing well."