LA Clippers: Can Ivica Zubac handle more playing time without Montrezl Harrell?

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

The LA Clippers are getting quality minutes from starting center Ivica Zubac. But would the young big man be able to handle an expanded role in the absence of Montrezl Harrell?

The LA Clippers will face a major decision this offseason when key reserve Montrezl Harrell becomes a free agent. The fifth-year big man out of Louisville has blossomed into one of the best bench players in the NBA, bringing amped up energy and quality minutes every time he steps on the floor. He’s a fan-favorite who most Clippers die-hards (and also us) would say the team should try to retain at any cost.

The cost is certainly the issue that could throw a wrench into those plans.

Harrell is earning $6 million on his current contract. A number he is way outperforming on the court. In fact, according to Spotrac, Harrell’s contract is currently the seventh most valuable of all the forwards in the NBA (just ahead of LeBron James.)

This offseason, his contract will certainly catch up to his value as a big pay day should be in store for Harrell. While the Clippers hold his Bird Rights, and can go over the salary cap in order to retain him, players with similar production numbers as Harrell (Tobias Harris, Gordon Hayward) often earn close to maximim contracts. That would be a high price to pay for the Clippers in their current cap position for any player, let alone one they use as a key reserve.

In a world where Monsta Trezz is not a Clipper next season, the team would look to 22-year-old Croatian center Ivaca Zubac to step up and fill some of the holes left by Harrell’s absence. The question is, can the young big man handle an expanded role?

Zubac is averaging 8.0 points and 7.2 rebounds in 18.1 minutes per game this season. That translates to per-36 minute numbers of 15.9 points and 14.4 rebounds. He boasts impressive Offensive (132) and Defensive (104) ratings. His most impressive statistic is probably his rebound rate, with a Total Rebounding Percentage of 20.6 and an NBA-best Offensive Rebounding Percentage of 15.2.

But quality production in limited minutes doesn’t always translate when minutes are increased. We all remember the memes about Boban Marjanović and his all-time great PER numbers, right?

We want to look at Zubac’s production in games where he was able to play increased minutes. Unfortunately, Montrezl Harrell has been healthy and consistent this season (this is the only scenario that would ever label this as “unfortunate”) and has only been inactive for a single game, December 28 against the Utah Jazz.

Zubac posted a season-high 27 minutes that night, posting 15 points, grabbing 12 rebounds, and adding two assists and a block. Unfortunately, the Clippers lost that game 120-107.

While a single game is certainly nowhere near a legitimate sample-size Zubac was able to post 12 points and 10 boards in 24 minutes against Cleveland on January 14, he also put up 14 and 12 in a loss to Milwaukee on December 6 again in 24 minutes of action.

Last season, when he was with the Lakers, Zubac was able to post stat lines of 24 and 16 (a career high) in 34 minutes of action against Phoenix, 16 and 11 in 32 minutes in a win over the Pelicans, and 18 and 11 in 30 minutes of play against Golden State. His career-high of 26 points came in 28 minutes of action against the Thunder.

Zubac’s conditioning, while it could use some improvement, is not as much of a concern as it is for the lumbering 7-foot-4-inch Marjanovic. He blossomed into a quality rim-protector last season, and the Clippers were much better defensively when he was on the floor (posting a 102.4 defensive rating in the minutes he played compared to a 109.9 with him off the floor, per The Athletic.)

“We have a rim-protector. Bottom line,” coach Doc Rivers said. “Trezz [Montrezl Harrell] does it at times. But Zu is a true rim-protector, and Zu has been great at it. So that’s why (we’ve improved).”

His presence as a rim-protector allows perimeter defenders to play tighter defense without worrying their man might get past them into the lane. His skills as a rebounder limit the opposition’s opportunities for second-chance points. In short, Zubac makes the Clippers an even more dangerous team on defense when he’s patrolling the paint.

Zubac is in the first year of a four-year, $28 million contract he signed last offseason with the Clippers. He’s going to be around for a while, and knows with the added money comes added pressure. He took that seriously last offseason, working on extending his shooting range and improving his strength and conditioning.

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“I can’t be the guy who’s not going to step up. I’ve got to step up and I’m going to do everything to be able to,” Zubac told The Athletic.

That’s the same attitude he’ll have to bring no matter what next season. But especially if the Clippers lose Montrezl Harrell in free agency. If it comes down to it, we think that he can be up for the task.