LOS ANGELES — Ivica Zubac is somewhat of a throwback to another generation of NBA centers. The Clippers’ Croatian big man stays in the low post, rarely venturing out of the paint on offense.
He does not seek 3-point shots. About the only time Zubac encroaches near the arc is to set a screen. Only 11 times in his five-plus seasons in the NBA has he attempted a 3-point shot, including one this season against Oklahoma City.
He has made one.
Rebounding, protecting the rim and defense are his priorities.
“I like playing defense,” Zubac said earlier this season. “I like helping guys out, the talking on defense, rebounding. I like shot-blocking.
“I got to step up and challenge everything. No matter how many fouls I got. So, I got to keep the hands up and go vertical.”
Zubac’s strongest qualities were on display Sunday against Indiana when he scored 31 points, grabbed a career-high 29 rebounds (12 of them offensive) and blocked three shots in a 114-100 victory. His rebounds vaulted him to the top of the 2022-23 NBA rebounding chart with 244 boards.
He ranks fourth in blocks with 39.
“I want to contest every shot at the rim,” said Zubac, who is averaging 10.5 points, 11.6rebounds and 1.9 blocks per game. “I don’t want teams to have easy shots at the rim. We have great defenders who can stop the ball one-on-one out there, but I have to make it hard for them in the paint.”
Yet, Zubac is a misfit among today’s centers as most no longer fit the perception of a traditional big man or what some might call a “true center.” The game has evolved with the importance of the 3-point shot, arguably the most important weapon in a team’s offense. See Golden State.
Zubac, though, has stuck to being a true center, someone who battles every night, everymoment on the court, under the basket. He’s not a center who hates the moniker. He doesn’t want to be a power forward.
At 7 feet tall and 240 pounds, Zubac prefers to play big. It’s his mentality.
“I hate small ball, I think every big hates it,” he said. “So, I want to be the best I can be to stay on the court and so we can play big.
“But you know, whatever works for us. I want to be out there; I want to help the guys with rebounding the ball. I know being small on the floor would hurt them on the boards and I want to be out there.
“I put some pressure on myself to play good so I can stay out there and help the team withrebounding really and defense.”
In the 2000s, the NBA center began to transform. The league got smaller, and the game got faster. The 3-point shots flew, even by the 7-footers, such as Nikola Jokic, Nikola Vucevic and Karl-Anthony Towns.
All of this makes Zubac a rarity, or as Coach Tyronn Lue put it, “a luxury” in today’s NBA.
“A big luxury. And I think I have to do a better job of, you know, when he has a matchup like that to post him more, to get him more involved offensively. Because he can score down in the block. We saw it last year.
“So, when teams play small, and they want to spread the defense out by having 3-point shooters, we can feature Zu a lot more. I have to do a better job with that.”
Zubac said he will take whatever plays, minutes and situations Lue puts him in. He just wants to play. And win.