Los Angeles Lakers fans have an abundance of reasons to be excited about the future.
They’ve landed D’Angelo Russell and Brandon Ingram in the past two drafts, and fellow first-round picks Julius Randle and Larry Nance Jr. are also showing promising signs early in their careers. Jordan Clarkson has surpassed expectations after slipping to the second round in 2014.
All five of those youngsters are playing significant minutes this season, and the Lakers boast proven veterans around them to help with the growing pains.
Ivica Zubac, their second-round pick from this past June, has spent most of his time with the D-Fenders in the NBA D-League. He’s appeared in just seven games for the Lakers and scored 15 total points.
But according to first-year D-Fenders head coach Coby Karl, Zubac belongs in that group of young players that could be forming into a contending team in the near future.
“I’d put him in that category,” Karl said recently of Zubac. “I think if you ask his teammates, they could see before the season what he’s capable of doing. It’s just a matter of time. He has to adjust to the speed of the game, the physicality of the game. He just has to get comfortable with himself. He’s a 19-year-old kid.”
Indeed, he is just 19. But Zubac, a native of Croatia, is already thriving in his time with the D-Fenders.
The 7-foot-1 center is currently averaging 15.3 points per game, a team-high 9.7 rebounds and one block while shooting 56 percent from the field, 36 percent from three-point range and 81 percent at the foul line.
Perhaps most impressive is that Zubac is a dominant force on one of the minor league’s top teams. After reaching the NBA D-League Finals last season, the D-Fenders are 17-5 — tied for the league lead — and Zubac is surrounded by many other elite offensive talents, such as leading scorer Vander Blue. Zubac is often the second or third option on the court.
“I think that’s part of the process of being a young player in the NBA,” Karl said. “Our team is unique in the fact that we do have NBA-level talent at almost every position. It’s good for him in the fact that he’s playing at a level that’s similar to the Lakers, but we also try to incorporate him as much as we can, because he’s so talented and can help us win games.
“Getting those reps, that live performance, is really important in building a player.”
That’s why Zubac, who played professionally in Europe for three years ahead of the 2016 NBA Draft, has bounced back and forth from Karl’s team to the Lakers in the past few months. As a result, he’s barely had time to establish relationships or develop chemistry with his D-Fenders teammates.
Regardless, Karl is satisfied with the performance of his young center under difficult circumstances. When asked to make a comparison, he mentioned former NBA All-Star Zydrunas Ilgauskas, who could step out and shoot but was also comfortable in the low post.
“He has amazing potential,” Karl said of Zubac. “I don’t know where his ceiling is, but it’s very high.”