Ivica Zubac is the longest tenured Clipper — and perhaps the quickest to be overlooked.
The 7-footer is vital to a Clippers team with little size — yet his presence can be taken for granted.
Coach Tyronn Lue ensured neither was the case on a recent morning inside the Clippers’ practice facility, pausing a film-study session at shootaround to direct attention to the 25-year-old Croatian, who carries none of the star power of some teammates yet has earned much of the credit for keeping the Clippers (12-9) afloat.
“We call him the anchor,” guard Luke Kennard said. “Just a different team when he’s playing well.”
Zubac has been the starting lineup’s anchor since the first game after his arrival via a 2019 trade from the Lakers. Even after new free agent Serge Ibaka claimed the starting role in the first weeks of the 2020-21 season, Zubac took the job back following an Ibaka injury and never let go.
Zubac has boasted what could be classified as breakout moments before — his impactful 2020 postseason, after he was unable to stay on the court in the playoffs one year earlier; the trust he’d earned from Lue over the last two seasons to play crunch-time minutes after he was largely strapped to the bench late under Doc Rivers; his metronomic reliability, with a streak of 205 consecutive appearances ending last season only because of a bout with COVID-19.
This season has been what many within the organization call his undisputed best and worthy of inclusion for award consideration amid career-high averages of 30.8 minutes, 11.6 rebounds and 1.9 blocked shots, to go with his 10.5 points, a season whose high point arrived in a 31-point, 29-rebound performance Sunday. Zubac became only the third NBA player in the last 49 seasons to finish with at least 31 points, 29 rebounds and three blocks — the last being Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in 1978.
“It’s crazy to be mentioned with Kareem and guys like that in the same sentence,” he said.
“Zu [is] one [of] the most underrated bigs in the league,” his former Lakers teammate Kyle Kuzma tweeted Sunday, “and I’m happy you had a game like that for everyone to see wow!!!!!”
Only 10 players this season are averaging double-digit points and rebounds — one other is Portland’s Jusuf Nurkic, whom the Clippers will face Tuesday — and amid that small group, Zubac’s 61% shooting from the field ranks second-best.
His playing time — an average of seven more minutes per game than last season — should not be read as solely a function of being the lone big man consistently in the Clippers’ rotation, Lue said, but as earned from his improvement.
Teammates and coaches cited Zubac’s increased physicality and his offseason playing for Croatia’s national team in EuroBasket, that allowed him to enter training camp already in game rhythm.
“I want to contest every shot at the rim. I don’t want teams to have easy shots at the rim.”
— Ivica Zubac, Clippers center, on his defense
“It was very beneficial,” Lue said.
“His want-to to punish guards, his ability now to punish people on the glass has been amazing, and then defensively he’s really manning the paint for us,” guard Reggie Jackson said. “I think it’s just him maturing and him really taking full ownership of being great and it’s been fun to watch.”
Asked about Zubac, Clippers players and coaches often add caveats with their praise, and that is because, as one coach said, they want him to reach what they believe is “another level.”
“I think we’re trying to find a good balance in terms of giving him his flowers and letting him know that … his ceiling is still so much higher,” Jackson said.
Opponents are making 45.2% of their shots within six feet of the basket on shots when defended by Zubac, the best mark among the 33 centers tested most at the rim for those who have defended at least five per game.
“I want to contest every shot at the rim,” Zubac said. “I don’t want teams to have easy shots at the rim.”
Asked about Zubac’s progression, several Clippers cited the eye test — such as when he has moved nimbly out of help defense to swat layups — but the numbers bear out his influence, too. In late November, one tweet showing Zubac as the NBA’s best at deterring shots at the rim was shared within the coaching staff.
“It’s glaring, when he’s off the floor we have a tough, tough time defensively and rebounding,” Lue said.
To Batum, Zubac deserves to be in the awards conversation for most improved player and top defender.
“We’re the No. 1, No. 2 defense in the NBA; he’s No. 1 in protecting the rim,” Batum said. “… He has a case.
“Now we’re like, dude, you can’t be off the court. We need you. That’s where he got his flowers because you are a big, big, big piece. You were already, but now even bigger.”
And it has been impossible to ignore.