Clippers center Ivica Zubac spent his summer researching how champions train and develop.
He wanted to know how the best honed their craft. From it, he created a long-term plan for success.
Amid a break from training camp last week, Zubac called all the work worth it. From big potential, he now sees huge possibilities.
He was talking about breeding champion show-jumping horses.
The sport, in which riders guide horses over a series of barriers several feet tall, has transformed for Zubac over the last four years from a more casual interest sparked by his fiancee, Kristina — a show-jumping competitor since she was a child — into a pursuit that has intensified in the last few months.
Sensing a business opportunity, Zubac wanted to know more about the sport’s best bloodlines, sires and breeders. If not for a conflict with the timing of Clippers’ media day last month, he would have attended a competition of the sport’s top circuit in New York.
Surprised? So is Zubac.
“If someone told me a couple years ago, ‘You’re going to be deep into show jumping with horses,’ I would be like, I didn’t even know that’s an Olympic sport,” Zubac said.
His summertime search for answers didn’t stop with his side project. He went deep into his day job, too.
Motivated by his bitter end to last season in the playoffs and the faith shown to him by the Clippers after they offered a four-year, $28-million contract, the 22-year-old 7-footer spent his offseason determined to clear his own, personal hurdle: staying on the court and becoming a factor when the stakes are highest.
“I can do it,” he said.
Among the 50 centers who defended at least 50 possessions around the basket last season, Zubac allowed the second-fewest points per possession and the second-lowest field-goal percentage, according to Synergy Sports. Offensively, his 60.7% field-goal shooting ranked in the middle of the pack. Yet the statistic that lingered most this offseason came from April’s first-round playoff series against Golden State.
After starting the first three games, Zubac played fewer than three minutes combined over the final three games. The switch came after Clippers coach Doc Rivers opted for a smaller lineup to counter matchup problems posed by the Warriors. JaMychal Green, a 6-foot-9 forward with three-point shooting range and better mobility, took Zubac’s spot with aplomb.
“Golden State went small and I couldn’t adjust to that,” Zubac said. “I know it was better if [Green] played. I was supporting the team but I was frustrated and I knew it was going to be a long summer.”
It hadn’t helped that Zubac broke a small bone in a finger and sprained a tendon in his palm two months earlier. He was neither the first center forced off the floor by Golden State’s small-ball lineup, nor the last. The Warriors rendered Houston’s Clint Capela ineffective in the following round and relegated Portland’s Enes Kanter to the bench during the final two games of Golden State’s conference-final sweep.
Zubac saw that as no excuse. During the NBA Finals, he watched as Toronto center Marc Gasol became a key factor in the Raptors’ championship triumph and thought, “Why not me?”
Zubac wanted to train with Gasol and his brother, Pau, this summer in Spain, but their schedules did not align. What Zubac observed on tape — Gasol’s rebounding, defensive communication and ability to spread the floor — offered enough clues.
“I knew what I got to work on to stay on the floor in the playoffs,” he said.
The Golden State series “should be motivation,” Rivers said. “He’s young but he’s not that young, and so the time for him is now and we need him to be a better player. I think he will be.”
The front office is betting so. Zubac entered restricted free agency hoping for a three-year deal. The Clippers wanted four.
“That shows you the team’s got a lot of faith in you,” Zubac said. “All you want to do is return that trust and you want to prove your worth. Prove that they made the right choice. It just made me work harder.”
It was not the first time Zubac said he has felt appreciated by the Clippers since being dealt by the Lakers, the team that drafted him 32nd overall in 2016, less than an hour before last season’s Feb. 7 trade deadline.
In their first conversation following the trade, president of basketball operations Lawrence Frank told Zubac the team envisioned him as part of the franchise’s long-term plan. More immediately, he was part of Rivers’ rotation, starting his first 24 games. Zubac averaged 9.4 points, 7.7 rebounds and 20.2 minutes in 26 regular-season games. He likens Clippers teammates to “brothers.” When Clippers coaches traveled to his native Croatia this summer for workouts, Zubac told them it was the first time a team had dispatched staffers to see him in the offseason.
Zubac said he had “a great relationship” with the Lakers, where he was part of a young core that included other top draft picks Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram, Josh Hart and Kyle Kuzma. But Lou Williams, a Lakers teammate of Zubac’s in 2016, has noticed a changed center, and not only because Zubac’s English is more conversational and his body trim (he cut out sugar and sodas from his diet this summer).
“They were trying to create superstars over there and I don’t think Zu was one of those guys that they were considering to be one of those guys,” Williams said. “He came over here with more of a veteran group, with more of a group that we kind of nurture our young guys, kind of grow them up with us. So it’s just a completely different environment.”
It is an environment that has set Zubac up for success. It is the Clippers’ hope, anyway.
“Zu, whether he’s going to be good to great, will all be from what’s inside of him,” Rivers said. “We can give him all the attention he wants, it’s got to come from in him.”
That understanding spurred Zubac’s offseason search for answers. He believes they will help him become a difference-maker, not solely a cheerleader, in next spring’s playoffs.
Then there is the barn owned by Zubac and his fiancee in their native Croatia. By next summer, it is expected to house its first foals — the first generation of what Zubac hopes will one day become championship-caliber jumpers.
“Whatever I do,” he said, “I want to be the best.”
He was talking, of course, about basketball, too.