Ivica Zubac said the Los Angeles Lakers “should be ashamed” after their 129-101 loss to the Denver Nuggets on Monday. It was indeed an embarrassing defensive effort for the Lakers, but Zubac made many members of the organization proud. Thrown into the starting lineup as , the center had a career-high 25 points on 12-for-15 shooting with 11 rebounds and a block in Denver.
Zubac showed off range on his jumper and touch on his hook shot. He competed with Mason Plumlee and Nikola Jokic on the inside. He set solid screens to get shooters open. He then insisted that none of it mattered.
“It doesn’t mean anything,” Zubac said, via Mark Medina of the Orange County Register. “Nobody cares. I would rather score five and win a game, have the team win, than score 25 and be blown out by 30.”
That’s the right attitude, but Los Angeles fans would probably rather lose. The Lakers don’t want to give up their draft pick, which is only protected if it falls in the top 3, so having their promising young center look great in a loss is just about the ideal scenario.
On some level, every Laker understands what is going on here. The players want to win, sure, but they also know that the front office is evaluating them based on how they’ll fit as it builds for the future. Zubac spent most of the first half of his season in the NBA D-League, so the rest of the season is about proving that he belongs. His recent performances indicate that he does.
“I want to play as much as I can and play as hard as I can,” Zubac said. “I want to get experience and get ready for next season, to earn my role for the next season and try to grow with the young guys. It’s going to be good to get some playing time with the starting five for the rest of the season. I’ll try to make the most of my minutes.”
Dario Saric Philadelphia PF
Last week: 1
Joel Embiid himself endorsed Saric for Rookie of the Year in a postgame interview Sunday, giving pause to those of us -- myself included -- who were weighing Embiid’s dominance against the fact that the center will finish the season with just 31 games under his belt. The way Saric is playing, he would no longer just be an award winner by default. This past week, he averaged 24.5 points, 7 rebounds, 3.5 assists, 1.5 steals and a block in four games, shooting 52.1 percent and 44 percent from 3-point range. His confidence is off the charts.
Skal Labissiere Sacramento PF
Last week: 5
Labissiere broke out Wednesday with a 32-point, 11-rebound performance in a win over the Phoenix Suns, shooting 11 for 15 from the field and 9 for 11 from the line. There were plenty of positive signs before that, though -- he had four blocks against the Magic on Monday, eclipsing his previous career high of one and showing that he has tons of upside on both ends. It appears Sacramento is going to try to get him lots of minutes next to Willie Cauley-Stein before the end of the season. That should be the team’s starting front court of the future, as long as they are given the opportunity to develop properly.
Jamal Murray Denver SG
Last week: 4
Another extremely confident rookie, Murray went 5 for 8 from downtown in his 22-point performance against the Lakers on Monday. He has scored in double figures in eight of his past nine games, and I think C.J. McCollum’s rookie season would have looked a lot like Murray’s if the Blazers star hadn’t broken his foot in training camp.
Jaylen Brown Boston SF
Last week: 9
The more you watch him, the more you appreciate what he has been able to do in his first season. The Celtics have the second-best record in the East, and coach Brad Stevens trusts Brown enough to play him in big moments. In his past 11 games, he has averaged 10.9 points and 4.4 rebounds in 23.7 minutes while shooting 53.6 percent overall and 46.9 percent from 3-point range.
Ivica Zubac L.A. Lakers C
Last week: Unranked
The Lakers have been painted as a dysfunctional mess because of everything that has happened with ownership and management, but that shouldn’t overshadow the impressive collection of young talent the front office assembled before Magic Johnson and Rob Pelinka took over. This isn’t exactly a Sam Hinkie scenario, but if Zubac is the real deal, then former general manager Mitch Kupchak deserves serious credit for nabbing him with the No. 32 pick.
Malcolm Brogdon Milwaukee SG
Last week: 2
Brogdon drops a few spots because he missed a couple of games with a back injury, but the No. 36 pick has had a better rookie season than anybody outside of Philadelphia. I really wonder how high he would go if the 2016 draft was re-done -- it’s probably at least 25 spots higher than he was taken.
Buddy Hield Sacramento SG
Last week: 7
I’m not saying we all need to apologize to Vivek Ranadive yet, but sheesh. Hield is averaging 13.5 points with a 65.1 percent true shooting percentage since joining the Kings, looking like a completely different player than he did early in his first season. While there are still valid concerns about his overall game, it’s hard not to be excited by what he’s doing on offense.
Willy Hernangomez New York C
Last week: 6
This is a weekly thing, but Hernangomez deserves credit for the fact he has been consistent since the Knicks committed to giving him minutes. From Jan. 31 onward, he has averaged 11.2 points, 9.9 rebounds, 2.1 assists, 0.8 blocks and 0.9 steals in 25 minutes. He might lose some of his playing time now that Kristaps Porzingis is starting at center, but he has made it tough for Jeff Hornacek to keep him off the court -- on Tuesday he had 13 points, 16 rebounds, four assists, a block and three steals in 31 minutes, filling in when Porzingis left the game with a thigh injury.
Brandon Ingram L.A. Lakers SF
Last week: Unranked
March has been by far the best month of Ingram’s young career, with averages of 12.4 points, 4.3 rebounds, 2.6 assists, 0.7 blocks and a steal in 35 minutes with a 52.9 shooting percentage. The tanking Lakers are giving him huge minutes, and every once in a while, he rewards them with a highlight play that looks 10,000 times cooler than normal because of how long his arms are. If his 3-point shot goes in consistently next season, watch out.
Caris LeVert Brooklyn SG
Last week: Unranked
The Nets front office has quietly made a bunch of nice moves, maybe none smarter than trading Thaddeus Young for the pick that would become LeVert last June. They were fortunate that an ankle injury hurt his draft stock; now that he’s healthy, he looks like a steal. Few rookies defend like he does, and his combination of size and athleticism on the wing is valuable.