If you’ve been a diehard NBA fan for years, you’ll probably remember the 2016-17 Los Angeles Lakers. No, their record wasn’t the greatest and, no, they didn’t make the playoffs in the competitive, crowded Western Conference.
Instead, this team had its fair share of inside jokes, including one that gradually grew into a viral sensation.
Recall a stretch of games between January and March where Ivica Zubac averaged 18 minutes per contest and showed plenty of potential for Luke Walton.
Then a rookie, the Croatian center hit double-figure scoring 13 times in 31 total games. The first time he received over 20 minutes of action, he recorded his first double-double against the Denver Nuggets. He did the same in back-to-back nights on the road about a week later.
As Zubac’s popularity as a player began to reach social media, Larry Nance Jr. started a movement to ensure his teammate’s ascent to infamy: ZuPac.
“So it originated with him saying people used to call him Zubacca – like Chewbacca Zubacca,” Nance Jr. told Basketball Insiders. “So I’m like, ‘Alright. Let’s take this a step further.’”
Spreading through the Lakers’ locker room Nance had shirts printed out of Zubac’s face photoshopped over rap legend 2Pac. Fans went wild for it, as did media and team reporters. And he wasn’t done there. Zu Alcindor, Kareem Abdul Zubar, Zuol Deng, Zulius Randle, Zu Williams and too many others to name caught on and stuck.
Even in 2019, Nance has more to add to the list.
“ZuPac, Zudacris, Zucci Mane, Lil Zuzi Vert,” Nance told Basketball Insiders. “Just kinda playing off different famous names. We had a lot of fun with it. He’s one of my favorite teammates I’ve ever had for sure.”
Unfortunately for those who appreciated the pair’s antics, neither Nance nor Zubac is donning the purple and gold colors any longer. The former has been back in Northeast Ohio enjoying a career year with his hometown Cleveland Cavaliers, while the latter is still playing in Southern California—just not with the same franchise.
In an attempt to surround LeBron James with perimeter-oriented talent, the Lakers acquired Mike Muscala from the Clippers and sent Zubac to Doc Rivers and company. It was a puzzling move for Magic Johnson and Rob Pelinka to make considering the flashes the third-year big man had shown.
Regardless of the optics regarding his old team, Zubac’s new team had big plans for him right away as an everyday starter.
“I was happy for him just to get a bigger role,” Nance told Basketball Insiders. “That was the Lakers’ routine where he wasn’t getting too many minutes, and the Clippers are a team where he can start and expand his role and hopefully build some value going into his free agency summer.”
“That’s what they told me when they traded for me,” Zubac told Basketball Insiders. “They told me I’m gonna be starting, so I expected it.”
In 18 games with the Clippers, Zubac is averaging 16.3 points and 14.5 rebounds per 36 minutes. He’s getting the most playing time he’s ever gotten to this point in his career on a consistent basis with a defined role, and he’s producing at a high level because of it.
“With Zu, it’s all about opportunity,” Nance told Basketball Insiders. “He’s super talented and I think he’s showed the fact that, once he gets a chance, he can really be a game changer and make something happen. In LA [with the Lakers], that wasn’t the place for him to get his opportunity and I’m just excited to see him really catch some stride and some traction on a playoff team.”
When asked about swapping clubs in Hollywood, Zubac pointed to a simple factor that’s made him appreciate the Clipper culture more than his former team’s.
“It’s always enjoyable when you win,” Zubac told Basketball Insiders. “So that’s the only thing that makes it better. Winning makes everything better.”
As the hottest team in the NBA, the surging Clippers have been doing a lot of that as of late. They’ve been the victors of five straight, have come out on top in 10 of their last 11 games and are one win away from clinching a postseason berth.
Maybe the most remarkable part of this run is the roster turnover the team underwent at the trade deadline. Still in the playoff race at the time holding the eighth seed in the west, LA’s front office decided to part ways with Tobias Harris, Boban Marjanovic and Mike Scott—along with Avery Bradley, Marcin Gortat and Milos Teodosic—to go younger and set themselves up for the offseason.
“It’s not easy, and it is disruptive,” Rivers said of the move. “But you have to appeal to your players and get them to buy into what you’re trying to do now, and then buy into what we’re trying to do long-term as well.”
The decision didn’t exactly send the right message to the players in the locker room at the time, either.
“When we traded Tobias, that was a tough stretch for us, because that’s a lot of points going out of the window for us,” Rivers said. “And not only him, but Mike Scott and Bobi as well. They were also good guys. They fit what we call Clipper DNA.
“Man, I didn’t know how they were gonna react. They didn’t react well the first day, I can tell you that. It was a tough day for us, a tough couple days.”
Fighting for their position in the postseason, the Clippers had dropped four of six games going into February 9, when they made a trip to Boston. The new additions had only been with the team for two days. Joining them on the road, there was no practice—only an hour or two of shootaround on the morning of the game.
LA was outscored 43-20 in the opening quarter and trailed by as many as 28 points in the first half, but a show of heart from mainstay players such as Lou Williams, Montrezl Harrell, Patrick Beverley, Danilo Gallinari—coupled with the fresh arrivals of Zubac, Landry Shamet, Garrett Temple and JaMychal Green—led to an improbable comeback win over the Celtics.
Rivers believes that moment became the tone setter for how they’ve played since.
“We went out and did that,” River said. “And Sham played terrific, Zu played terrific in that game. I thought that kinda bought everybody back in and allowed us to get our feet under us. So I thought that win, if you had to point at one that helped us turn it around, that was big for us.”
Zubac agrees with his coach that it was an eye-opener for the Clippers.
“When we got here and we showed we could play and we were gonna help the team to win, then everyone started playing better and started feeling better and it just kind of started rolling,” Zubac told Basketball Insiders.
In the midst of their last extended trip of the season, LA has won both games in Cleveland and New York. Before that, they had a season-long homestand where they went 5-1, a time in which Rivers saw the team connect on a closer level. He thinks it’s because the coaching staff has elected to take it slower and keep it simple.
Not many plays from training camp are left in the book. With little practice and shortened time, the Clippers have stuck with one set at a time per week and done things on the fly. To Rivers and his staff’s credit, it couldn’t have worked much better than it already has.
“We’ve decided, ‘run it well,’” Rivers said of the approach. “Whatever we do, run it well, and that’ll be it. And then run the next thing as opposed to putting in everything.
“This has been an extraordinary group of guys. Last year, we had similar guys. This group wants to win. They want to prove that they’re better than people think they are. I’ve said that from day one that they are, and they’re proving that.”
Zubac’s specialty comes through his presence in the paint on both ends. Since Feb. 7, he is seventh in the league in defended field goal percentage at 53.3 percent. Here’s a statistic that should garner praise—he allows the least amount of opponent second-chance points per game (3.8) among centers during that time as well.
According to Cleaning The Glass, the Clippers’ opponent free throw rate increases by 6.6 free throws per 100 field goals when Zubac is off the floor, putting him in the 98th percentile compared to his peers. Let’s not forget that LA’s defensive rating is 112.3 when he is absent, a figure that ranks in the 87th percentile.
“Defensively, he’s a beast down there,” Nance told Basketball Insiders. “His timing is great, he’s got a good feel for the game – whether it’s verticals or blocking the shot, he’s certainly altering way more than people even realize.”
Though he has made a mark already for his new team, by no means is Zubac satisfied. There’s going to be a sizeable focus on expanding his shooting range, improving his athleticism and becoming more explosive during games.
Nance has seen it in practice before when the two were together on the west coast, so he has the utmost belief that Zubac can do it.
“That’s not new for him,” Nance told Basketball Insiders. “He’s always been a really good rim protector, he just hasn’t…you gotta get confidence and opportunity. That’s what this league is all about. So once he got those things, he could really show what he can do.”
Nance hates the question of a ceiling for players—as does this writer—however, his candid prediction for Zubac lies within what happens at the center position in the future.
“To me, a lot of it depends on where basketball goes,” Nance told Basketball Insiders. “There was a while there where seven-footers were growing extinct.
“Now – especially starting in the East – they’re starting to come back and make a resurgence, and controlling the paint is really becoming a major deal. He’s someone that could certainly play a huge role in the resurgence of the seven-footer for sure.”
As far as where Zubac will be in five years, we’ll have to wait and see where this chance takes him. He’s got a shot to either grow with the Clippers or potentially another team (pending on whether or not he receives a $1.93 million qualifying offer in June to make him a restricted free agent).
Three years into his career, Zubac feels he’s come pretty far since he first came into the association. He’s not a rookie anymore, but he’ll still ask questions when he needs to, and his new teammates are more than willing to help.
“I think I’m adjusting to the NBA level,” Zubac told Basketball Insiders. “I think I can play any style of basketball that’s required. There’s a long way to go still, but I think I’m at a pretty good place.”
It’s hard to disagree.