If you ask Ivica Zubac for the thing he needs to improve upon the most, and the thing he’s already improved the most, his answer will be the same.
It’s all about defense.
“I want to keep improving in my pick-and-roll defense,” Zubac said. “I think that’s the area where I can improve the most and help on defense to everybody and positioning defense, post defense. Mostly defense. I think if I improve on defensive end, I can help my team a lot more.”
Last week, the Lakers shifted their lineup with an eye toward their future. They replaced small forward Luol Deng with rookie Brandon Ingram in the starting lineup, and they replaced starting center Timofey Mozgov with backup center Tarik Black. But while Deng is now coming off the bench and still playing big minutes for the Lakers, Mozgov is not.
The shifting lineups made Zubac the Lakers’ backup center. In the three games since Coach Luke Walton made the change, Zubac has averaged about 20 minutes per game.
“It’s been great,” Zubac said. “I mean it was a little bit hard at the beginning of the season but that makes it even better now. I’m just going to continue working and I’m hoping I’m going to get more minutes. It feels great to be on the court with my teammates and that’s all I ask.”
Since being selected 32nd overall, Zubac has taken a long journey to getting the playing time he now has. He played in only seven of the Lakers’ first 42 games and even then only sparing minutes. The Lakers wanted him to lose some weight and develop. Most of his playing time came with the D-Fenders, the Lakers’ Development League team.
Then, as he slimmed down and showed his progress with the D-Fenders, the Lakers began to make a concerted effort to find more minutes for Zubac.
In the last 14 games, he’s had six games in which he scored in double figures, and he’s had four double-doubles. In the Lakers’ win over the New York Knicks, Zubac blocked four shots.
It was his first game at Madison Square Garden, but this reaction to the stage signaled why he’s quietly been succeeding.
“I know that’s a most famous arena but to me it felt like every other place we play,” Zubac said. “I was just doing what team needs me to do and I forgotten everything else around us.”
The All-Star break is often a point of delineation for teams, but for the Lakers that came earlier.
Their five-game trip while Staples Center prepared for Sunday’s Grammy Awards marked philosophical and tangible shifts for the team. They also learned tough lessons against top Eastern Conference teams such as the Boston Celtics and the Washington Wizards.
During the trip, the Lakers beat the Knicks and Milwaukee Bucks while falling to the Wizards, Celtics and Detroit Pistons.
“We definitely could’ve and probably should’ve won a few games that we didn’t,” Lakers forward Larry Nance Jr. said. “Should’ve brought it more against Detroit. All in all I think we’re going home a better team than we were when we left.”
The Lakers also rank 22nd in defensive rebounds and 28th in opponent points off turnovers.
The Lakers allow 47.3 points in the paint, which ranks 27th in the NBA. A dramatic example of their interior struggles came during this most recent trip, when the Pistons scored 70 points in the paint against the Lakers.