As Luke Walton watched Ivica Zubac pump-fake baseline for a bucket and power through the paint in Monday’s preseason opener, he saw a different player than the one from two months ago.
Zubac had surprised many with the success of his rookie season, and he assumed that Summer League would be easy for him, according to Walton.
But Zubac, Walton and the team in general were disappointed by his performance, as he struggled to keep up with the tournament’s fast pace and finish through contact.
Walton sat down with Zubac after Summer League to discuss what steps needed to be taken, and the 20-year-old got to work.
He changed his diet and committed to the weight room, which led to him arriving at training camp at just 8 percent body fat — an 11 percent drop from last year.
“It’s impressive, right?” Walton said on Sunday. “He looks great. Even on some of his dunks he had in the game yesterday, he looked way more explosive than he did just in Summer League a couple months ago.”
Indeed, Zubac had a little extra boost to him in Saturday’s preseason opener. He made his first three shots from the field on his way to nine points, five rebounds, two assists and two blocks in 19 minutes.
“I was waiting for this game since the last game of Summer League,” Zubac said. “I’ve been working hard for this game.”
The slimmed-down Zubac spent time over the offseason working on his agility. This year, he wants to able to hang when switched onto guards and defending pick-and-rolls.
But it also helps that the pace is not so fast outside of Summer League.
“I feel much better and the game is much slower,” Zubac said. “It’s nothing like Summer League. Summer League was just up and down the whole game. This is much slower paced and fits me more.”
Zubac is also benefitting from the presence of two mentoring centers: Brook Lopez and Andrew Bogut.
Lopez and Bogut both played five-on-five at Sunday’s practice, but neither will play in Monday’s exhibition, as the team will take its time with both veterans’ returns.
In the meantime, they have given guidance to Zubac.
“I watched some of Brook’s highlights from last season and he used a spin move all the time,” Zubac said. “So I asked him to show me that, and he said he’s happy to show me whatever I need.”
Zubac was especially excited when the Lakers signed Bogut, who shares a Croatian heritage with the young center.
In particular, he was thrilled to have someone to speak Croatian with. While 95 percent of their conversations are in Croatian, it was an added bonus for the Lakers rather than a reason to bring Bogut aboard.
“I would’ve asked for more money if it was,” Bogut said.
Bogut’s parents are Croatian, so he speaks the language fluently, although he admits his grammar could use some work. He also summers in Croatia for about two or three weeks a year.
“I have somebody who understands me finally,” Zubac said. “It’s great. It’s so much easier. Sometimes it’s hard to pick up on English when coach is trying to say something.”
It’s a connection six years in the making. A mutual friend in Europe had been trying to introduce the two since Zubac was 14, but now it’s come together naturally for the new teammates.
“I think Bogut will be great for Zu, just like I think Brook will be great for Zu,” Walton said. “Zu is a talented young player who’s hungry to get better. It’s great to have vets on the team who you can learn from.”