Ivica Zubac earns both praise and a new nickname in Lakers’ Summer League debut

LAS VEGAS — The crowd roared into a frenzy as they saw how those long and outstretched arms performed something magical.

Only eight minutes into his first NBA Summer League game, 19-year-old Bosnian born center Ivica Zubac threw out his arm to swat a shot. Six seconds later, Zubac did the exact same thing.

Lakers fans may have never heard of the 7-foot-1, 240-pound rookie center until the Lakers drafted him No. 32 overall nearly two weeks ago. But it did not take long for them to fall in love with him during the Lakers’ 85-65 victory over the New Orleans Pelicans in Summer League play on Friday at the Thomas & Mack Center. So much that as Zubac collected 11 points on 3-of-4 shooting, five rebounds and three blocks, several of the fans chanted “Zu Block.”

Apparently, that is a nickname Zubac both endorsed and already had.

“My old teammates gave me that nickname,” Zubac said. “When I separated ways from them, that nickname was forgotten.”

Still, it wasn’t clear if Zubac said “Zu Block” or “Zu Blocka.” Either way, more clarity on his nickname could emerge when the Lakers play against the Philadelphia 76ers on Saturday at Thomas & Mack Center.

Lakers forward Larry Nance Jr. had already likened Zubac to former NBA blocking specialist Dikembe Mutombo. Lakers point guard D’Angelo Russell already referred to Zubac as “Big Z” and compared him to Memphis center Marc Gasol. Lakers summer league coach Jesse Mermuys affectionately called Zubac “the big fella.”

“A big fella with some sweetness to him,” Russell clarified. “He’s really good. I don’t think people know how good he is yet.”

The Lakers did not know as much either.

The Lakers’ front office became intrigued enough with his size, post-up ability and defense to draft him, for sure. Yet, Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak expressed uncertainty after drafting him whether he would play right away in the NBA. This week, though, the Lakers signed Zubac to a three-year deal.

The Lakers’ coaching staff then became interested in seeing what Zubac could bring. But he missed the first two Summer League practices because of pending paperwork. Mermuys reported “he did not look like he was in that kind of shape” when he first practice on Thursday.

But on Friday, Mermuys mused that Zubac “could have played the whole game” after logging 28 minutes in a 40-minute contest.

“There were times where I was like, ‘Man, I can’t take this guy off the court!,” Mermuys said. “I couldn’t believe his conditioning. Where did that come from?”

Opposing players may have felt the same thing as Zubac blocked their shots and converted in the post. Zubac also became pleasantly surprised how quickly he adapted to a much faster game than he became accustomed to in Europe.

All of which prompted Zubac to approach Nance Jr. at one point and simply say, “I love playing for Lakers.”

“I knew that before, but now I see everything,” Zubac said. “I love playing with these guys. It’s so easy. They get me easy looks. I just hope I can continue to play like this.”

The Lakers sounded just as excited.

“He’s great to be around,” Nance said. “He’s going to be a great locker room guy. We love having him around.”

Zubac has given off that vibe even with the language barrier. After all, he has mostly interacted with Serbian center Nikola Jovanovic. Yet, no language barrier exists for the actions Zubac performed on the court.

“The dude knows how to play; there’s no question,” Mermuys said. “I don’t know if he understands what I’m saying, but then he’ll deliver. He’ll go out there and run it right.”

Zubac heard Mermuys’ words as he stood in an adjacent hallway. Zubac interjected, “I understand everything.”

That included hearing the supportive chants and new nickname he hopes to hear for a while.


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Follow L.A. Daily News Lakers beat writer Mark Medina on Twitter and on Facebook. E-mail him at mark.medina@langnews.com