EL SEGUNDO — The Lakers brought Timofey Mozgov here last summer on a lucrative four-year, $64 million with the promise he would become the team’s starting center.
That did not actually play out in real time. Lakers coach Luke Walton shut Mozgov down for the past two months for the sake of developing younger players. It did not help Mozgov averaged 7.4 points on 51.5 percent shooting and 4.9 rebounds and could not elevate the Lakers out of the bottom of NBA in several defensive categories.
So it does not seem surprising Lakers president of basketball operations Magic Johnson and general manager Rob Pelinka did not offer any assurances about Mozgov’s role next season Yet, Mozgov sounded optimistic his role will increase.
“I think it’ll change,” Mozgov said. “I have a feeling.”
Mozgov said he expects to become the starting center to open training camp. Though Lakers coach Luke Walton has said all players will open the 2017-18 season with a blank slate, it does not appear clear whether the Lakers will grant Mozgov’s wish.
Mozgov predicted “there’s going to be some changes this year” as the Lakers seek to upgrade their roster possibly the NBA draft and free agency. But Mozgov also pleased patience on Lakers rookie center Ivica Zubac having an increased role.
“I don’t think Zu is ready to be starting,” Mozgov said. “I think it’s a different thing when you come in the league, you’re up and back and then in the starting lineup as opposed to going into the season in the starting lineup. It’s two different things.”
After the Lakers selected him with the 32nd pick out of Croatia in the 2016 NBA draft, Mozgov offered intrigue on the Summer League team before having multiple stints with the Lakers’ Development League affiliate. After becoming the definitive starter in March, Zubac averaged 11.1 points on 57.1 percent shooting and 4.8 rebounds through 12 appearances before suffering a high ankle sprain that kept him out of the Lakers’ final seven games.
While Mozgov’s assessment partly stems from self interest, Walton had also expressed uncertainty on whether Zubac will start right away next season. Nonetheless, the Lakers are encouraged with his growth in his post play, versatility and work ethic.
“Most important for Zu is he listens to what the coach says and he hears it,” Mozgov said. “He listens to the coach do this and he hears it and tries to put it on the court. It’s really important for a young player to understand it.”
Mozgov, a native Russian, has often mentored Zubac both with his play and acclimating to the United States. But Mozgov faced his own hiccups with the Lakers. Still, Mozgov downplayed how he will improve during an offseason that will partly entail training with the Russian national team. He also contended he can adapt to the modern NBA that entails expanding his range and defending big men along the perimeter.
“I don’t try to do something different. I try to do the same thing I do, maybe a little bit better,” Mozgov said. “You have to understand sometimes you can put so much extra in your job and play as hard as you can. But sometimes it’s not about you. It’s about team and other guys.”
Yet, Mozgov sparked plenty of attention and criticism regarding the size of his contract.
“You don’t want to think they’re stupid and don’t know basketball” Mozgov said of critical fans. “They’re not like coaches. They’re not like GMs. But they’re looking at the game and there are things they like to see and things they don’t like to see. You have to look at them differently than a coach and a n other player. At the same time, as a player I know when I’m bad and when I’m good. It actually work on the things I need to improve. Sometimes it’s hard, but I can handle it.”
Though Mozgov contended that has not created pressure, he admitted the challenges in handling a sudden demotion.
“I don’t play for two months at least. It’s kind of hard. I’m a kind of guy that likes to play basketball,” Mozgov said. “It’s not easier at all. It’s a different season and it gets harder.”