ATLANTA — The man standing at centercourt beforehand symbolized the Lakers’ intriguing future.
Rookie center Ivica Zubac embraced for his first NBA regular season start on Wednesday against the Atlanta Hawks after center Timofey Mozgov became sidelined with a left eye injury. That gave the Lakers hope their 32nd draft pick out of Croatia would grow with a major opportunity.
The man hanging on the rim beforehand symbolized the Lakers’ frustrating past.
Dwight Howard’s lone season four years ago with the Lakers provided headaches with back surgery limitations, personality clashes with Kobe Bryant, philosophical disagreements with Mike D’Antoni and a reluctance to play pick-and-roll with Steve Nash. Yet with Howard leaving the Lakers via free agency, his defection also marked the first of many star players no longer impressed with the purple and gold glitter.
That set up a delicious storyline between one of the Lakers’ most hated foes and one of their emerging fan favorites. All with the possible hope this could fuel long-term growth.
“Obviously it will be a tough matchup for him,” Lakers coach Luke Walton predicted. “But we have confidence that he can hold his own.”
Walton turned out to be clairvoyant.
In the Lakers’ 123-116 victory over the Atlanta Hawks on Wednesday at Philips Arena, Howard showed why Walton still considers him “one of the best bigs in our game” by posting 31 points on 12-of-16 shooting and 11 rebounds in 31 minutes. Zubac collected three of his four fouls in the first five minutes and 28 seconds of play. Still, Walton reported feeling “pleased with his effort” after Zubac also posted six points on a 3-of-3 clip and three rebounds in 18 minutes, 32 seconds.
“Dwight can do that to pretty much any big in the league, let alone a rookie that hasn’t seen anything like that before,” Walton said. “But he didn’t look nervous. He looked excited to be out there and he made some good plays.”
Zubac also did not look nervous when Walton informed him of his start on Wednesday morning shortly after the Lakers determined Mozogv would sit. Despite not playing at all in the Lakers’ first four regular-season games, Walton did not want Mozgov’s absence to disrupt in rotation both with the starters and reserves. So, Walton gave Zubac a simple message.
“Get some rest,” Walton told Zubac. “You’re going to have a battle on your hands.”
“Okay, Coach,” he replied.
Hours later, Zubac appeared calm as he sat by his locker. He maintained he did not feel any anxiety because he already made his first NBA start in the Lakers’ preseason finale two weeks ago against Phoenix. Then, Zubac already showed promise with a four-point outing on a 2-of-5 clip and two rebounds in five minutes.
Zubac also listened to advice from nearly everybody. Frontcourt players that have already either defended or played with him offered tips, including Mozgov, Tarik Black (former Howard teammate in Houston), Metta World Peace (former Howard teammate wit the Lakers), Luol Deng, Larry Nance Jr. and Julius Randle. Other teammates, such as D’Angelo Russell and Jordan Clarkson, simply provided encouragement.
“I know what to expect,” Zubac said. “I’m ready.”
Part of Zubac’s readiness stemmed from his familiarity with Howard as an NBA fan.
Zubac observed that Howard “likes to fight in the low post.” Zubac laughed about possibly adopting a “Hack a Dwight” strategy, saying he would intentionally send Howard to the free-throw line only “if it’s necessary.” Zubac appeared to subtly diminish Howard’s game by speaking about his greatness in the past tense.
“He was one of the best centers for the last 10 years. Everybody knew Dwight Howard,” Zubac said. “He was once one of my favorite players when he was playing for the Magic. He was the best center in the league at that time.”
But when the Magic traded to the Lakers? As a life-long supporter of the purple and gold, Zubac sounded pretty aware of how that all turned out.
“It didn’t end as expected,” Zubac said. “That’s all I can say. It didn’t end like everyone was suspecting; them being a super team and they were going to win it all. What can you do?”
Nearly an hour later, Zubac stepped on the court and appeared determined to make a statement.
It took Howard only 15 seconds to create enough space to throw down an open dunk. Yet, Zubac immediately charged on the other end. Unlike Howard’s time with the Lakers, Zubac has already consulted with former Lakers center Kareem Abdul-Jabbar on his hook shot.
So Zubac wasted little time showing off something Howard has lacked. Zubac made two hook shots on consecutive possessions. After those promising moments, though, Zubac picked up three fouls within three minutes and 28 seconds. Walton then substituted Black for Zubac.
“It’s hard. You have to be between the basket and him and hope he’s going to miss,” Zubac said. “He can back down everyone. I was just holding my hands in the air and hoping he was going to miss.”
That did not happen often. Still, the Lakers liked how Zubac played. So much that Lakers forward Nick Young even called him a “star” and pointed out the Lakers are “undefeated with him thus far.” Zubac also lived up to his vow not to foul again after collecting his third one. Instead, Zubac appeared disciplined defensively with both his effort and communication on rotations.
“I think he did a great job,” Russell said. “He did what he can possibly do. In this league, Dwight gets fouled a lot. He got ‘Zu’ in foul trouble. But on the other end, he still made plays. He executed on the offensive end, too.”
Will Zubac have more opportunities to do that soon?
If Mozgov remains sidelined, certainly. But Walton hinted Zubac would not start or play significant minutes barring an injury to any of the team’s centers. Nonetheless, Walton vowed he will “try to find him minutes here or there throughout the year.” Zubac will also appear in various stints with the D-Fenders, the Lakers’ Development League affiliate.
“I don’t think it’s that big of a deal one way or another how well he personally plays,” Waltpn said. “But I think it’s good for him to get out there and feel the speed of the NBA game.”
Zubac also felt like what it was like to match up with a dominant center and a player he once idolized, an experience he vowed he would never forget for obvious reasons.
“Yes, sure. Of course,” Zubac said. “It’s my first starting game for the Lakers.”
And that coincided with the Lakers (2-3) collecting their first road win.
Said Zubac: “Even better.”