Rookie Center Ivica Zubac is Playing His Way into the Lakers' Future

"He got asshole in him," says Metta World Peace, who means that as a compliment.

by Louis Keene
Mar 15 2017, 1:00pm

Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

To get an idea of what Ivica Zubac is about, first roll the tape back to NBA Summer League, when, about twenty minutes after Jerami Grant puts the Lakers' second-round rookie on a poster, a reporter graciously informs Zubac that his Wikipedia page has been updated to say that he has just died.

"I did, a little," he muses.

Now fast forward to November 2. Zubac starts in the first game of his NBA career, taking on the Hawks and Dwight Howard. He flicks a couple of hook shots over Dwight for the Lakers' first four points, and finishes with six in 19 minutes; meanwhile, the Atlanta big man pummels his former team for 31. The Lakers win. Zubac, though somewhat humbled by the experience, is also emboldened, having drawn blood from the beast.

"I think I can score on everybody," he later tells VICE Sports. "I think I'm a really good offensive player. My back-to-the-basket game is something I'm proud of—I think that's my biggest strength. That's my opinion: I think I can score on almost every guy, and I'm not going to back away."

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In the NBA, as in life, you can only spend so much time looking up at the Suns, which is to say: this Laker season has probably induced its fair share of cataracts. After outpacing expectations during a 10-10 start, the team's wheels came flying off. More than $100 million doled out in free agency last summer on Luol Deng and Timofey Mozgov is wasting away on the bench, the youth movement is facing a margin call, and management is embroiled in an internecine power struggle that has turned Ramona Shelburne dispatches into serialized Shakespeare.

And yet Laker fans can smile, not because the Knicks are in worse shape, or because Paul George is around the corner, but because newly appointed president of basketball operations Magic Johnson wants to see if a seven-foot-one, nineteen-year-old Croatian kid can really score on every guy. Going forward, or at least for the rest of this season, Zubac—also known as Zupac, Zudacris, Zucci Mane, Zu Alcindor, Zuol Deng, and Zulius Randle—will start at center, providing the final intrigue and endorphin boost of this doomed 2016-17 campaign.

Zubac has survived a gauntlet of D-League stints, DNP-CDs, and rookie-year initiation to make it from November 2 to career start No. 2, and earn his chance at being at the center of the Lakers' future. He has also become a canvas for nicknames.

An authentic back-to-the-basket center prospect, he represents an ideal so thoroughly written off in the modern NBA that anyone clinging to its vestiges should be obligated to shoot skyhooks or else play for Phil Jackson. (Zubac's shooting skyhooks.) While he hit a few threes in the D-League, he hasn't taken any with the Lakers because head coach Luke Walton wants him in the middle of the floor, where he can play off pure instinct. He is bracingly frank and a compulsive shrugger, though they're working on the second part; he's not a finished product, and he doesn't pretend to be. He alternately self-effaces and preens. In other words, he's a teenager.

Nevertheless, because of the human need to categorize, to fit broadly indeterminate futures into old, familiar shapes; because the mystery of what Ivica Zubac can become stems from the question of who he is; and because this Lakers season has been nothing short of putrid and jokes can cover up the smell, he has acquired the Zudonyms.

Like, for example, Larry Nance Zunior? VICE Sports asks.

"That could be a good one," Larry Nance Jr. says. "After all, he is my son."

Zubac matched up with breakout star Nikola Jokic. Photo by Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

There are 450 roster spots in the NBA. Every June, 60 new players are drafted. A few of them are stashed overseas, a few from previous drafts make their way here, but ultimately it is a zero-sum game; no new jobs are created. For a player to make it in the NBA, he has to move into someone else's locker. You can't become a starter without sending someone to the bench.

So a newcomer—especially a Euro, who battles the stereotypes practically from birth—is probed for weakness. Established guys will mock his grasp of the language, swing a high elbow, cross a line just to draw a reaction. If a rookie is soft, he will be sniffed out quickly, and harassed until he's pushed out.

The nicknames started in training camp as a way to bridge a communication gap between Zubac, whose English was good but choppy (he started learning it in fifth grade), and his new teammates. "It was kind of a bridge," said Nance, who coins most of them. The second-year forward had reached out to Laker coaches before the season to see how he could mentor Zubac. "We were laughing and he was laughing—it kind of became a competition as to who could get the best one."

It was good-natured teasing, but ultimately it gauged the thickness of Zubac's skin. The Zudonyms piled up along with DNPs as Walton struggled to right the ship in the early months of 2017. Zubac stayed patient, even as he shuttled back and forth between the D-League and the varsity squad. Timofey Mozgov, whose minutes and starting job Zubac eventually took when the Lakers adopted full tank mode, came away impressed with the rookie's mental chops.

Veteran forward Metta World Peace went a step further. "He gained our respect," World Peace told VICE Sports. "Young kid come from overseas, accent a little different—we imitate him a lot. He takes it and he performs under that pressure. We'll joke, call him Zu-back, Tupac, like we do all the rookies; as a veteran you pick out something that can make them upset and you see where their mind is at. He got asshole in him, and you know what? You need that."

"Sometimes you gotta be like that," Zubac said, laughing. He shrugs. "You gotta let people know that they cannot treat you like whatever they want. I wouldn't say asshole—but you gotta let some people know who you are."

Nance is quick to point out that Zubac fires back, and as a result Nance claims to have a growing vocabulary of Croatian profanities. But the monikers have become a part of Zubac's identity here, for better or for worse, and an analgesic meme de résistance on days World Peace's "I love basketball" doesn't resonate. To his teammates, at least, the Zudonyms are inextricable from the kid who keeps their heads up, who Nance says genuinely rooted for their success even when he was on the bench.

"It's been a rough season," Nance said. "Anything you can use to make you laugh, you gotta have stuff like that."

When asked about it, Zubac's relishes the chance to big-time his teammate. "That's just stupid nicknames that Larry Nance comes up with," he says. "They don't make any sense, but they're fun for him I guess."

The ability to playfully savage a teammate won't keep a kid in the league if he can't also play. We're talking, after all, about a rookie averaging six points and four rebounds. His productivity comes in bursts; he can get pushed around on the boards.

But offensively, Zubac is a natural. He moves intelligently off the ball, sucks in offensive rebounds with a quick second jump and a seven-foot-four wingspan, and shoots his signature push shot—an automatic deuce from eight to ten feet—like a crumpled draft at a wastebasket. He's a smart, eager passer.

"He has a very laidback ease to his abilities that's pretty unique," says Coby Karl, Zubac's coach with the D-Fenders, the Lakers' minor-league affiliate. "He isn't just, dribble middle and shoot a hook shot. He's got a lot of shit to his game."

Zubac played his way out of the D-League, averaging 16 and 10, and he's skyhooking and drop-stepping his way to similar numbers per 36 minutes with the Lakers. But he can't stay in front of people—Walton says he's too vertical—and so he's never actually gotten anywhere near that much run in an NBA game.

He'll never be fast, and his biggest strength—his size and skill in the low post—has largely been phased out of NBA offenses. Even the D-Fenders had to install post-ups in their offense to get Zubac his touches. But the Lakers are leaning into Zubac's development as an old-school pivot before stretching him out to the three-point line. That speaks more to an emphasis on nurturing his physicality than an entrenchment in Laker glory-day philosophy (though Zubac is working on the skyhook with legendary coach Bill Bertka, who is 70 years his senior).

"Seven-foot is only going out of if you can't play at seven feet, if you're not a playmaker, a skilled player," Walton told VICE Sports. "You gotta be able to pass, shoot, defend smaller players. And we think he can do those things."

Zubac will tell you any of this. He knows he has a long way to go before his coaches trust him as the Lakers' anchor. He just doesn't have any idea what his game will look like when that happens. "I just want to be the best player my team needs," he said. "I can do a lot of things, but I got a lot of work to do."

Trust him, though, to let everyone around him know exactly how he's coming along. All of the traits that endear him to his teammates apply between the lines, too, whether it's the unselfishness described by Nance or what World Peace called "the asshole in him." He's self-effacing because he knows exactly what he's capable of.

He would often come to the D-Fenders' point guards at halftime and press for the ball. "When he knows he's better than someone, he's not afraid to say it," one former D-League teammate said. "And he's usually right."

On the court, the Zudonyms fall away, and Zubac is just "Zu."

It took more than four months and a complete overhaul of the Lakers front office for Zubac to get his second career start. Magic had urged Walton to see if Zubac could handle starter minutes, and against the 76ers on Sunday, after openly contemplating the idea in the pregame presser, the head coach finally obliged. The starting job is now the rookie's to lose.

Zubac turns 20 on March 18. In one of the last games of his teenage years, he came out with a fury, blocking four shots to go with nine points in the first quarter. The full arsenal was on display. He hit from 20 feet, scored an and-one, and tossed in a couple rough drafts. He was quiet the rest of the way.

"He had his moments, and he had his moments of, you know, being 19," Walton said after the game.

The next night in Denver, Zubac puts a career-high 25 and 11 on the Nuggets.

When it's pointed out that the Lakers' four-month undefeated record with him starting is kaput, Zubac is momentarily crushed. But he vows to bounce back.

"I hope next game, if I start, we're gonna win," he says, "and I'm not gonna let it happen again."

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