When Ivica Zubac entered the NBA as a 19-year-old, he’d already been speaking English for seven years, and supplemented his classroom lessons in Zagreb, Croatia, by listening to Tupac Shakur and Eminem and watching American television.
Still, as the 7-foot center was beginning his career primarily in the NBA’s developmental league, he told Lakers teammate Lou Williams, an NBA veteran for more than a decade, that he didn’t understand what opponents were saying to him. Talking trash was an idiom he couldn’t quite crack.
“[Lou] was like, ‘Just tell them shut the hell up and keep playing and get a bucket on them,’” Zubac recalled.
Three seasons and one team later, Zubac sometimes pauses his interviews to find the right word, but otherwise is fluent in English, basketball talk and pop culture. And yet, teammates know that when Zubac is at his most agitated, whether at officials or himself, his frustration will spill out in Croatian.
“I sit on the bench, I’m mad, I didn’t do something right and I just start going on in my native language,” he said. “They’re around me looking like, ‘What is he saying’?
Through this season’s first five weeks, Zubac feels more confident, is playing more minutes and has required fewer venting sessions in his native tongue. From his expressions to his statistics, Zubac’s teammates say his changes have required no translation.
“You can just see it in the way he carries himself on the floor,” Clippers forward Maurice Harkless said. “He’s a lot more confident.”
Before Wednesday’s game in Memphis, which ended after this edition’s deadline, Zubac’s 153 points, 127 rebounds, 290 minutes and 21 blocks through 18 games had smashed his previous career-highs at this point in previous seasons. His hands healed from injuries suffered last season, he’s shooting a career-best 59.6%.
The gap between Zubac’s end to last season and start of this one might as well be a gulf. In April, the Clippers yanked him from their starting rotation during a first-round playoff series against Golden State when he couldn’t stay on the court against the Warriors’ lethal, smaller lineups. That experience, along with the four-year contract worth $28 million he signed in July and the hope of becoming a valued contributor on a title contender, led Zubac to make quicker decisions on the court this season.
“Everything I do I’m more decisive,” Zubac said. “I’m more confident. Last year, sometimes before I would do a move or when I would help somewhere on the defense, I would be a little late because I was thinking about it, I was not decisive. This year if I see something I just go and do it, I don’t think about it. That’s really helped me.”
Defensively, opponents are shooting a team-low 44.2% within six feet of the basket against Zubac, and offensively he’s been a frequent target out of pick-and-rolls by star teammate Kawhi Leonard.
“He’s coming in focused to the games trying to keep the guards in front of him coming downhill,” Leonard said. “And then his timing is getting better so he’s able to protect the rim and block shots.”
That trust shown in him from his teammates, especially one with the credentials of Leonard, has been an undeniable factor in his boost to this season.
“It makes me want to work harder because that’s a two-time champion, two-time finals MVP, he believes in you,” Zubac said of Leonard. “If he sees something in you you’ve got to bring it every night. You can’t disappoint a player like that.”
When coach Doc Rivers was asked a general question about the Clippers’ defense following a victory last week against Boston, he instead zeroed in on Zubac’s “phenomenal” effort staying with Boston’s Kemba Walker on the speedy guard’s drives to the rim. Doing that last season would have been difficult, as Zubac learned the Clippers’ defense on the fly.
For as much as Zubac has impressed, playing him in crunch-time minutes remains a difficult proposition given the efficiency of backup center Montrezl Harrell, the team’s closer. Opponents have been outscored by 4.9 points per fourth quarter when Harrell is on the floor; no other Clipper — not even Kawhi Leonard, the team’s frequent fourth-quarter savior — can match that. Harrell’s energy and productivity have made any decisions about fourth-quarter minutes easy, Rivers said. But “Zub is a guy that you can trust, as well,” he added.
Said Zubac: “Of course I want to be on the floor in the fourth. But if Trez is on the court, if that means we’re winning the game, I’ll sit back and cheer, be the loudest guy on the bench.”
In these moments, he hopes to be understood, loud and clear.