Ivica Zubac’s playoff battle against Nikola Jokic is a source of pride for legendary coach
When morning comes in Belgrade, Dejan Milojevic avoids glancing at his phone.
He doesn’t want a notification or Whatsapp message to spoil what happened while he slept during this NBA postseason series he has anticipated so greatly.
So he brews a cup of green tea and folds the 6-foot-7 frame that made him a star, undersized forward in Europe into a chair in front of his computer. Loading the previous night’s broadcast from the Clippers’ second-round matchup against the Denver Nuggets, he focuses on the opposing big men he knows well, Ivica Zubac and Nikola Jokic.
His view used to be closer.
At Mega Basket, the Serbian developmental club where he coached for eight years, Milojevic mentored a teenage Jokic for two seasons before the center left for the NBA in 2015. A year later Zubac, another 7-footer, came from Croatia at 19. Jokic’s physique needed work, but his passing turned defenses inside out. Zubac needed opportunity, but having left home at 13 determined to join the league in which his second cousin, Zoran Planinic, played and his idol, Kobe Bryant, starred, he was driven.
Milojevic feels like a delighted older brother watching his former pupils face off as starters on two of the Western Conference’s best teams. It is affirmation, he says, of something he believed long ago, something others around basketball have only awoken to recently. Forget the Adriatic League; Jokic and Zubac have the ability to rank among the best young centers in the game, full stop.
The Clippers, as they were in 2015, are one win away from advancing to their first conference final, but they’re oblivious to past failures: ‘We’re still fighting.’
“I feel nice being part of their path,” Milojevic said during a phone interview. “I’m really — I can’t find the exact word to describe this feeling that I have. I’m proud. Proud is probably the best word.”
The efficiency of Jokic, who has averaged 24.8 points, 11.0 rebounds and 5.3 assists against the Clippers, could have been predicted. Though he arrived at Mega with conditioning Milojevic recalled as “terrible” — the coach had to break it to Jokic that the team practiced every day — basketball came easily, where he fired passes and shots at angles few dared. Within three years of joining the NBA, he’d averaged a double-double. By his fourth, he was an All-Star.
“He’s the best passing big that I’ve seen, I think, ever,” Clippers coach Doc Rivers said.
It wasn’t inevitable that Zubac would have what Rivers called the “playoff of his life” during the first round against Dallas last month, or that his effectiveness would carry over against the Nuggets.
Zubac played sparingly for his early clubs. Even the satisfaction from his breakout moment, a double-double at the 2015 under-19 world championships against a U.S. team featuring future lottery draft picks Jayson Tatum and Josh Jackson, failed to be a springboard to stardom. Months later, Zubac injured a knee. Eyeing the 2016 NBA draft, he asked to join Mega because of its history — seven alumni were on NBA rosters this season.
Zubac needed playing time, confidence and more polished tactics upon his arrival midway through the season. Yet the coach, and NBA scouts, saw an NBA future, and not only because of his shot-blocking.
“It is not easy to find talented guy willing to work,” Milojevic said. “That’s why he’s so successful.”
Zubac identifies as Croatian but grew up just across the border in Bosnia and Herzegovina, where his father owned an import-export business. When the school year ended and classmates left for summer vacations, Zubac worked in his father’s warehouse, where eight-hour shifts alongside grown men began at 8 a.m.
He was 11.
“I packed a lot of boxes,” Zubac said. “He and my mom, they were always talking like, ‘This is the way to prepare you for life, to build your working habits.’”
Thirteen days before the 2016 draft, Zubac felt his work was not yet finished in Serbia and held off traveling to the U.S.
Mega trailed Belgrade-based FMP 2-1 in a best-of-five series, whose winner would finish third in the Serbian League and qualify for the more prestigious Adriatic League the following season. Before tipoff, the coach pulled his center aside. He’d welcomed Zubac months earlier, in part because of his toughness. Now he needed to see it.
“The crucial thing to win the game is you have to stop layups,” Milojevic said. “He just told me, ‘Hey, don’t worry, you know? I’m going to kick their ass.’
“He changed the game and we won and then we go to a Game 5 that we won easily. I really loved the kid, who doesn’t have experience so much, that he played a really important game for his team, was so confident. That was really for me when I knew that he’s the guy who can make a really, really, great career.”
The footage of the game isn’t high-definition, but Mega’s trademark pink and neon green uniforms aren’t the only thing that pop. Playing with a “different kind of energy,” Zubac redirected shots at the rim. He flushed a two-handed dunk in the final minutes despite catching ahand in the jaw.
“He challenged me,” Zubac said of Milojevic. “I knew I got to get to the states to work out for the teams to show myself, but at the same point, I was like, with everything that’s waiting for me, the best way to show myself is to help this team qualify for Adriatic League and do all the things that are required for me to win. I kept that in mind and was like, ‘OK, it’s time to turn it up.’”
In four NBA seasons since — first with the Lakers, who drafted him 32nd overall in 2016 before trading him to the Clippers last year — Zubac can recall feeling a similar adrenaline only a handful of times.
One was March 5, against a Houston team with five starters 6-7 or less. A year earlier, Golden State’s small-ball lineup in the postseason sent Zubac to the bench. It was the motivation for every offseason workout that followed. The “crazy energy” he felt against FMP returned. He had 17 points, 12 rebounds and the Clippers routed the Rockets.
“I took it personal like, I’ll show you that a big is needed to win games,” Zubac said. “I was locked in differently.”
The Clippers set tone by holding the Denver Nuggets’ vaunted offense to 12 points in first quarter in Game 4.
That intensity returned during the Clippers’ close-out game against Dallas in the first round. Zubac had 15 points, 11 rebounds and the Mavericks shot five of 17 against his defense.
“He’s really, really good,” Dallas coach Rick Carlisle said. “He’s gotten exponentially better in the last year.”
Zubac has averaged 9.5 points and 7.0 rebounds and shot nearly 62% against Denver, all while guarding Jokic, whom he first guarded as a teenager at a tournament in Hungary. Rivers called Zubac “fantastic.”
Zubac and Jokic aren’t close, but their relationship has deepened since Zubac’s rookie year, when Mega and Milojevic served as the common link for their postgame chats. The NBA’s Disney World bubble has allowed for regular meet-ups, and Balkan players have regularly dined en masse. After an Aug. 26 all-player meeting to decide whether their walkout over racial injustice would continue, several sang Serbian songs until the wee hours at a restaurant. Zubac wasn’t there — he spent the night talking with his Clippers teammates — but joined the next day.
“It’s good to have someone who speaks your own language just to get your mind off of basketball,” Zubac said.
Milojevic has coached on Summer League staffs with Atlanta, Houston and San Antonio, and hopes to be the latest Mega import. He called a full-time assistant role an “option” for next season.
Until then, he will wake early and watch NBA League Pass, six time zones ahead. Serbian fans are rooting for Jokic, he said. But in Croatia, where Milojevic recently visited to work basketball camps, some are staying up late to watch Zubac.
“I was talking with the people, the fans,” Milojevic said. “They really are delighted. I think they can be just proud of him like I am. I’m really proud.”
Greif reported from Los Angeles.
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