Clippers’ Ivica Zubac looks more comfortable in new role off the bench
Last fall, no Clipper departed the league’s postseason bubble near Orlando, Fla., exactly happy with what had taken place. But if there was anyone who had reason to look back with a measure of fondness, it would have been Ivica Zubac.
It wasn’t only that the 23-year-old, 7-foot center had averaged 9.1 points, 7.2 rebounds and 24 minutes in 13 breakout playoff games, while earning praise for the way he complemented Kawhi Leonard and Paul George offensively while backstopping their defense at the rim. It was the timing. Just one season earlier, during his first postseason appearance, he’d been benched.
“I took that as a challenge,” Zubac said.
And it has been one at times.
This season, Zubac has averaged as many minutes, nearly as many points and a higher shooting percentage, yet hasn’t looked fully comfortable while adjusting to his new role and learning the tendencies of his new lineup partners. Instead of anchoring a defense led by three former members of the league’s all-defense teams, Zubac’s rim protection took on even greater importance playing with a reserve unit that has often featured leaky perimeter defense.
While Clippers coach Tyronn Lue has won two NBA titles as a player and one as a coach, the players know their talks are a two-way conversation.
His rebounding average dropped by nearly three boards a game, and through 15 games he has registered a negative net rating — the difference between points scored and allowed with a player on the floor per 100 possessions — for the first time since his rookie season.
“I think he struggled early on just because of playing with new, different guys, just having to try to find his way and niche in that second unit was tough early on,” Lue said Wednesday, after a 115-96 victory against Sacramento that extended the Clippers’ winning streak to five. “His attitude, as far as just seeing what we wanted him to try and be willing to do, he was great with that. He’s still adjusting. We are trying to adjust and get him in with the starters a little bit more, as much as we can. Just try to make him feel more comfortable.”
Zubac looked it Wednesday against the Kings in what was his easily his most impactful performance thus far.
He scored 11 points, grabbed a season-high 12 rebounds and appeared to gain rhythm after being played in long, unbroken stretches — nearly 11 consecutive minutes in the first half, followed by nearly 12 minutes in the second, with a combined plus-minus of 11. He was plus-11 during a nearly four-minute stretch to close the third quarter alone, a span that included a tough layup and foul that caused Leonard to raise a fist aloft in celebration and Patrick Beverley to bound off the bench with a clap.
At 11-4, the Clippers own the franchise’s third-best record through 15 games.
“Zu just doesn’t know how dominant he can be,” George said. “You forget how young he is, he’s still a baby. But it’s on us to continue to give him that positive reinforcement. Just tell him to keep going. You know, especially in second units that he’s playing against … it’s very rare that you find bigs that are his size in the league today. And so that’s what I think is one of the biggest advantages he has. So he’s just got to own it, own being the biggest guy on that floor.”
With his pride damaged by the Clippers’ playoff disaster last season, Paul George is determined to show the best possible version of himself.
Zubac’s eight defensive rebounds helped the Clippers grab 42, one off their season high and nine more than their season average, which ranks among the lowest in the league.
“One of my roles is rebounding the ball and not giving up offensive boards, and I feel like I can be one of the best in the league at that,” Zubac said. “I just got to bring energy, got to box out on every possession and I felt like I didn’t do a great job with it to start the season. But I think I’m getting better at it.”
Zubac said he viewed his shift in role as “whatever they need me to do, I’ll help.” For guidance, he could have looked no further than the career arc of teammate Lou Williams. It was not Williams’ choice to come off the bench during his first NBA seasons, but it was his decision to make the best of the situation that helped him become the league’s all-time leading scorer off the bench. What the Clippers need Zubac to do now is play as he did against Sacramento more often.
“His mind is still in it, even though he’s coming off the bench,” Leonard said. “He’s been coming in with high energy still, still the same character, and, you know, I appreciate that from him. A lot of guys get down when they lose their starting position but you know he’s all about winning.”
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