Why Ivica Zubac deserves more recognition — and more minutes

LA Clippers, Ivica Zubac (Photo by Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images)
LA Clippers, Ivica Zubac (Photo by Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images) /

The LA Clippers have been great with their stars on the floor, but Ivica Zubac deserves more credit for the team’s hot start — and more minutes.

Paul George and Kawhi Leonard have been making plenty of noise for the LA Clippers so far this season. Even though their on-court partnership has only recently begun, they’ve been spectacular and are two of the biggest reasons why the Clippers have won 14 of their first 20 games.

That said, LA isn’t necessarily a team defined by its stars. At least, less so than a lot of other teams around the league.

The Clipper bench is arguably the best in basketball, so even when George and Leonard are having off nights (like the ones they had in San Antonio), a win is never out of the question. Much of that has to do with the efforts of Lou Williams and Montrezl Harrell, who are both in the midst of some of the best years of their careers.

But another player outside of LA’s “Big Four” — namely Ivica Zubac — has been playing some excellent ball as well, and he deserves a portion of the credit for the Clippers’ 14-6 start to the season.

Since he re-signed with the Clippers this summer, Zubac has looked like a different player than the one we saw during the second half of last season. His touch around the rim has improved now that his hands have healed, and he’s been much more patient with the ball as well.

So far this season, he’s connected on 69.3 percent of his attempts at the rim — an enormous increase from the 53.8 percent he shot at the rim during his brief tenure with the Clippers at the end of the 2018-2019 season.

It looks like Zu has made an effort to improve his footwork, too. He’s made a few plays this season where he’s looked more agile than before, but few have been as noticeable as the one he made here against the Memphis Grizzlies:

Zu has also developed a nice pick-and-roll partnership with Leonard, which has since been dubbed “KaZu” by our own Ryan SnellingsAccording to Basketball-Reference, he’s spent more minutes with Kawhi than all but three of the Clippers’ players, and the duo has outscored opponents by 6.0 points per 100 possessions.

His improvements on offense have been well-documented, though. Where he doesn’t get enough credit is on the defensive end of the floor.

More often than not, you’ll read or hear that the Clippers don’t have a rim protector. And while Zu may not be able to be classified as “elite” given he only plays about 16 minutes per night, he’s been fantastic when he’s on the floor.

Zubac currently owns a defensive rating of 100.7, which is a measure of points allowed per 100 possessions. In comparison, Rudy Gobert, the 2018-2019 Defensive Player of the Year, posted a rating of 100.4 last season. Zu’s rating is comparable to Patrick Beverley‘s (103) and Leonard’s (99.5) as well.

The only issue with giving Zubac more minutes is that they would come at the expense of Harrell, which is difficult to justify.

Trezz is enjoying a career-year almost across the board, averaging new highs in points, rebounds and assists and matching previous highs in steals and blocks. And as usual, he’s been incredible alongside Williams.

Defensively, those two don’t achieve much. Williams’ defense has been significantly worse than in years past, and Harrell, despite giving all of his efforts, doesn’t offer a lot outside of blocks and rebounds. Larger bigs have always been able to take advantage of his size, and that won’t be changing soon.

That paves the way for Zubac to play more minutes against teams with more dominant big men, and it could be key that he gets as many of those as possible. Assuming the LA Clippers go deep into the playoffs, they’ll need Zu’s defense against guys like Anthony Davis and Nikola Jokic. Harrell won’t be able to hold against either of them, and considering how much the ball is run through those players, it could spell trouble for the Clippers if Zu doesn’t have enough reps against them going into the matchup.

Trezz is an important part of the LA Clippers’ closing lineup, but the fourth quarter could be a good place for Zu to start picking up a few more minutes — especially if Trezz is struggling offensively.

Zubac is always good for a bucket or two, and he’s an above-average player on the offensive glass that could help the Clippers string together a few extra possessions down the stretch. Surrounding him with clutch shooters could lead to some beautiful ball movement and wide-open looks, which are crucial in close games.

The LA Clippers have figured things out since PG's return. dark. Next

The LA Clippers have plenty of time to experiment with lineups, and we’ll probably see Zubac play more minutes at some point during the season. That said, if he ends up being part of the solution to some of LA’s struggles, then they’ll want to have as much time to prepare him for the postseason as possible.