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.
Looking Toward The Draft: Power Forwards
Basketball Insiders continues their NBA Draft watch, this time with the power forwards.
We got some updated NBA draft news this week when the league announced that several key dates have been pushed back including the draft, the start of free agency and the beginning of the 2020-21 season.
The 2020 draft was originally scheduled for Oct. 16, but it will now likely occur sometime in November. Obviously, with the COVID-19 pandemic still wildly out of control in the United States, all of these potential deadlines are fluid and subject to change.
With that said, we’re continuing our position by position breakdown here at Basketball Insiders of some of the top 2020 draft prospects. We looked at the point guards and shooting guards last week, and this week we’re covering the small forwards and power forwards.
The power forward crop, like the draft overall, doesn’t appear to be as strong as recent years, that doesn’t mean there aren’t potential contributors and high-level NBA players available, as well as one who might just turn out to be a star-caliber player.
Onyeka Okongwu, USC – 19 years old
Okongwu is the player who just might develop into a star on some level. He was actually underrated in high school and was snubbed for a McDonald’s All-American selection his senior year. He established himself early on at USC as the team’s best player as a freshman and now appears to have turned some heads.
He’s been mentioned as a lottery pick and in some mock drafts, he’s top 4-5. He possesses a great all-around skill-set; he can score in the post, he can put the ball on the floor and attack and he can shoot. But perhaps his biggest attribute is his versatility on the defensive end. He’s got quick feet and mobility and can guard multiple positions.
Okongwu might actually play center in the NBA, especially in small-ball lineups, but he’s mostly played power forward and so he’ll probably see time there in the league. His skill-set fits perfectly with today’s game.
Obi Toppin, Dayton – 22 years old
Toppin is one of the older players in the draft, and in recent history, players that age tend to slip on draft boards. In Toppin’s case, it looks like the reverse might actually be true. He’s been projected as a lottery pick, and even going in the top 3.
He’s an incredibly athletic player who thrives in the open court. He looks like he’ll do well in an up-tempo offensive system that has capable playmakers who can find him in transition. He’s extremely active around the rim and he can finish strong. A decent shooter too, something he’ll need at the next level.
Toppin has the physical tools to be an effective defensive player, but that’s where the questions marks on him have been. In the NBA, he’s likely going to have to play and guard multiple positions. Whether or not he can adapt to that likely will answer the question as to what his ceiling can be.
Precious Achiuwa, Memphis – 20 years old
Achiuwa is another intriguing prospect. this writer actually got to watch him play in person while he was in high school and he was very impressive. He looked like a man among boys. He’s projected to be a late lottery pick.
He has an NBA-ready body and he’s got some toughness around the rim and in the paint. He was a double-double threat during his one season at Memphis and his knack for rebounding is something that should translate to the NBA. He’s a very good defender too, in particular, as a rim protector. He’s very quick and has the ability to guard multiple positions.
One of the main knocks on Achiuwa is his shooting ability. He didn’t shoot that well in college and power forwards being able to space the floor is almost a requirement in today’s NBA game. It’s something he can certainly work on and improve on though.
Paul Reed, DePaul – 21 years old
Xavier Tillman, Michigan State – 21 years old
Killian Tillie, Gonzaga – 22 years old
Looking Toward the Draft: Small Forwards
Basketball Insiders’ examination of the 2020 draft class continues with a look at the small forwards.
It was announced on Wednesday that the NBA Draft would be delayed from Oct. 16 to Nov. 18. The rationale is that the extra month gives the league and its players association more time to negotiate changes to the CBA. It also grants teams additional time to procure information on prospects and allows the NBA to establish regional virtual combines. But nothing is set in stone.
Still, draft prep must continue. This year’s draft class has more question marks than usual – which was complicated by the cancellation of the NCAA tournament (along with the NIT and a number of conference tournaments). There are incredibly skilled offensive players with limited offensive upside and jaw-droppingly talented defenders with incomplete offensive packages. But if (recent) history serves as a guide, there will be a few guys who make an immediate impact – and some of them very well could be small forwards.
The small forward position is key for the modern NBA. Want proof? Survey the league and you’ll find that most – if not all – contenders have an elite small forward – Milwaukee, Los Angeles (both), Boston, Miami, Toronto.
But the list of can’t miss small forward prospects feels smaller than usual. Scanning the numerous legitimate mock drafts (including our own by Steve Kyler), it becomes apparent that we lack a consensus on which small forwards will be selected (and in what order) after the top 3 or 4. Can any of them grow into a star? Maybe. Maybe not. But before we get too far ahead of ourselves, let’s identify what the top few bring to the table.
Deni Avdija, Israel – 19 years old
Avdija is a relatively well-rounded prospect who’s played professionally since he was 16. He boasts good height (6-foot-9) and uses it effectively to shoot over and pass around opposing defenses. Further, Avdija is an exceptional playmaker and he’s incredibly confident, enabling him to take chances many players would be apprehensive trying. Avdija is a high-IQ player. And what’s more, he’s a surprisingly strong defender. His height and above-average athleticism allow him to block shots, and he’s more physical than you’d expect him to be.
But there are drawbacks to Avdija, too. His main issue is around shooting. Avdija shot only 28% in the EuroLeague last season, and he shot only 60% from the free-throw line. Further, while he’s a decent athlete, he’ll struggle to secure a role in the NBA. He’s going to need to add speed to stay with modern wings, and he’ll also have to bulk up to bang with power forwards.
Still, Avdija’s upside is alluring. He’s only 19, and his smarts, confidence and grittiness should provide him cover for much of his rookie season. Avdija should be the first small forward off of the board.
Isaac Okoro, Auburn – 19 years old
Avdija might be the flashier name currently, but Okoro will give him a run for his money in terms of which small forward is first off the board. Okoro is built like a traditional NBA wing; he’s 6-foot-6 with good strength packed in his muscular frame (215 lbs). Okoro finishes well around the rim and he converts well through contact. He’s an exceptional athlete who excels catching the ball on the move. Like Avdija, Okoro has the poise and composure of a more experienced player. Also, like Avdija, Okoro looked the part of a high IQ player in his lone season at Auburn.
And while all that is great, the main allure of Okoro is his defense. He’s a fairly advanced defender given his age, and his athleticism and timing make him an effective weak side help defender.
While Okoro’s raw abilities are exquisite, his refined offensive skills leave something to be desired. Okoro shot 28 percent on three-point field goals and he struggled from the free-throw line (67.2 percent). His mid-range jump shot also needs work, and he struggles in isolation situations.
If Okoro can hone his offensive game, he could grow into an All-Star. He has the ability to guard multiple positions, and his strength and athleticism give him a leg up on most prospects. But even if he doesn’t become an All-Star, he possesses a fairly high floor given his defensive abilities — and the guy definitely fills the state sheet (12.9 points, 4.4 rebounds, 2.0 assists, .9 steals and .9 blocks). He has lockdown defender potential and he’ll put his stamp on the game beginning on night one.
Devin Vassell, Florida State – 20 years old
Vassell played two seasons at Florida State, but he came into his own in his Sophomore season. He averaged 12.7 points, 5.1 rebounds, 1.6 assists, 1.4 steals and 1.0 blocks per game. He shot a more than respectable 41.5% on three-point attempts, and he demonstrated a strong stroke from the free-throw line (73.8 percent) and on two-point field goal attempts (53.2).
Vassell is an extremely athletic leaper, who can rise up for a highlight dunk and sprint down the floor with ease. He has good body control and demonstrated a strong mid-range game, especially his step-back jump shot. But Vassell must generate more free throws through decisive moves to the hoop, which would be bolstered by a more muscular frame. Additionally, he must improve his ball-handling to get more from isolations.
Vassell will have an adjustment period in terms of scoring the ball at the next level. Fortunately, his defense and shooting should get him by. If he can bulk up and improve his handling, Vassell could grow into a serious player.
Aaron Nesmith, Vanderbilt – 20 years old
Nesmith probably has a lower floor than any of the other top small forward prospects given that he’ll be 21 by the draft. Still, he looked quite good in his Junior year, averaging 23 points, 4.9 rebounds and 1.4 steals per game on a scorching 52.2 percent shooting from deep. Nesmith is an incredibly gifted shooter who has impressive range. His ability to catch-and-shoot and create space with fakes makes him a promising prospect – for the right team.
Nesmith is a high IQ player who uses his smarts on the defensive end. He’s also quite strong, can get buckets in the open floor and demonstrates above average ball-handling skills, as long as he’s not taking the ball to the hoop.
But there are inherent limitations in Nesmith’s game. He’s doesn’t create for his teammates too effectively and he turns the ball over more frequently than one would like with. Further, Nesmith is plagued by robotic movements that limit his athleticism. His ball-handling breaks down when taking the ball to the rack – something he’ll certainly have to work on in the NBA if he wants to be a versatile scoring threat against the bigger and stronger competition.
Still, Nesmith’s positives give him an excellent chance at being selected in the first round. His range alone will intrigue teams in need of a shooter.
Saddiq Bey, Villanova – 21 years old
Jaden McDaniels, Washington – 19 years old
Robert Woodard II, Mississippi State – 20 years old
With the uncertainty around small forward prospects, expect to see a revolving door of names enter the discussion after the first four wing prospects are off the board prior to Nov. 16 – assuming the draft is held then. But regardless of how you have them ranked, all of the aforementioned prospects have question marks. But all have had far more time to improve than they would have in years’ past. Let’s hope that shows come next season.
NBA Daily: Opposite Plotlines for Today’s Matchups
With the two matchups going on today, Matt John examines the two teams who could be in the most trouble because of one of their individual stars for opposite reasons.
The second round of the NBA playoffs was hyped up to be one of the most entertaining we’ve had in years. So far, they haven’t fallen short of expectations. We knew that Houston and Los Angeles’ battle of opposite philosophies would make for some twists and turns. We knew that Boston and Toronto would duke it out in an Atlantic Division showdown. We knew that Miami would push Milwaukee to new heights. We didn’t really know if the Nuggets would give the Clippers a good series, but the fact that they have so far has made an intense postseason all the more gripping.
Anyway, today we’re getting two games from two series in completely opposite places. The Lakers and the Rockets will face off for the series lead, while the HEAT will try to finish off the Bucks once and for all. Below, we’re going to focus on two teams who have an individual star that either may be more flawed than we thought or one that may not be as flawed as we thought.
Bucks vs. HEAT: Giannis is great and all, but…
We all pretty much knew this was going to be a good series. We did not expect this.
The buzz surrounding Bucks v. HEAT was that Miami was going to make Milwaukee earn every win they got in this series. If that was the plan, then Miami has failed miserably, because until Khris Middleton went supernova on them on Sunday, Milwaukee had come up terribly short.
Let’s first give Miami the credit that they are due and more. With Bam Adebayo and Jimmy Butler alone, Miami was going to be a tough matchup for Milwaukee – but to see the Bucks all but roll over in this series is an unpleasant sight. Acquiring Jae Crowder and Andre Iguodala has paid huge dividends and it’s showing. There are other factors involved, but Miami’s defensive efforts have limited Giannis to 21.8 points a game and that’s played a role in the HEAT being in the driver’s seat of this series.
Speaking of Giannis Antetokounmpo, this series has not been a good look for the Defensive Player of the Year. Especially since it looks like his second consecutive MVP (presumably) is right around the corner. So, to see both him and Milwaukee, once an unstoppable force without an immovable object in sight, get stopped by a sturdy but not immovable squad is saddening.
Nearly a year ago, Basketball Insiders compared these current Bucks to the Dwight Howard-led Orlando Magic from the late-2000’s/early 2010’s. To oversimplify things, both were contenders led by a superstar with a rare physique that made them tough to stop. To put the superstar in the best position, they surrounded them with playmakers and three-point shooters.
While the teams’ roster constructions weren’t exactly the same, their strengths as a team certainly were. Now we’re seeing the Bucks’ flaws just as we did the Magic 10 years ago. If you have the personnel to make the lone superstar uncomfortable, the team doesn’t function as well.
Giannis is near impossible to stop, but the one major flaw is that if you take away his ability to drive and force him into a jumper, he loses his rhythm. Even if his shot is on – never a guarantee – his opponents will let him beat them that way until he makes them pay. Hardly any team can pick on this, but the HEAT are one of them, and now they’re one win away from their first Eastern Conference Finals since LeBron James took his talents out of South Beach.
This ultimately is what puts Antetokounmpo below the likes of LeBron James and Kawhi Leonard for now. Those guys are rare physical specimens like him, but their elite games don’t revolve entirely around their natural gifts as he does or Dwight did. At 25 years old, there’s plenty of time for him to change that and, for all we know, he will, but to see him struggle at a time when the conference was supposed to run through him has ignited tons of questions.
Milwaukee’s technically not out yet, but they’ve shown their mortality against Miami. If this really is it for them, then they’ve got to find a quick fix for this problem because if they don’t, then the unspeakable may happen.
Lakers vs. Rockets: Westbrook has been bad and all but…
Shaking off the rust and recovering from a balky knee would be tough for anyone. For Russell Westbrook, it’s killing his productivity and, in turn, the Rockets’ playoff chances. He’s averaging 15.6 points on 39/16/47 splits with a most recent 10-point, 4-of-15 effort from the field which included seven turnovers and air balling wide-open threes sticking out like a sore thumb.
It also doesn’t help that he’s playing the Lakers of all teams. When Westbrook has been in, the Lakers have taken advantage of his shortcomings offensively and it shows both on the court and the stat line.
Most of Westbrook’s damage is hurting Houston on the offensive end. With the All-Star guard in the game, Houston is minus-13.7 with him on the court, the worst offensive rating on the team. The 12 turnovers he’s coughed up in this series probably have something to do with that.
With Westbrook’s struggles and his predecessor Chris Paul coming off of his best individual season since 2016, this, of course, has led to many second-guessing the swap last summer. Or let’s rephrase that: People have been second-guessing that trade since the moment it was announced and, in light of recent events, they’re piling on now more than ever.
Maybe they’re right. Even after playing in the NBA for over a decade now, Westbrook still hasn’t proven that he can control himself enough to reach his potential as a team player. We’ve seen glimpses. On the other hand, Paul showed that he can still pick apart defenses while holding his own on that end.
But replacing Paul with Westbrook was Harden’s idea. He didn’t want to play with Paul anymore and chose to play with one of his closest friends. You may think that the better fit is what’s best for the team, but we’ve seen the damage that can happen when your team’s best players have friction with one another. It hurt Utah this season. It hurt Boston last season. It destroyed the Lakers back in 2013. There’s no telling what it could have done to Houston this season.
Besides, we know that as bad as Westbrook has been, he’s capable of being better. Not a knockdown shooter, not even an efficient scorer, but he has done better in the past when the focus was on him. The more days he takes to shake off the rust from his knee, the more optimistic the Rockets ought to be.
The Rockets have to take the glass-half-full on this one because they don’t really have a choice otherwise.