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Kawhi Leonard, Doc Rivers praise Ivica Zubac – ‘He could be a very dominant center’

Doc Rivers, Kawhi Leonard, Ivica Zubac, Clippers

LOS ANGELES – The L.A. Clippers got back on track Monday night in a 111-96 win over the Charlotte Hornets. Kawhi Leonard led the way with 30 points, seven rebounds, six assists, two steals, and three blocked shots on the night. He had some significant help on the defensive end in this one, however, thanks to a strong rim-protecting effort from Ivica Zubac.

Zubac, who turned 22 years of age earlier this year, finished Monday night with a new career high five blocks, setting the tone for the Clippers’ interior defense and making it dreadful to deal with all night long. After the game, Leonard spoke about Zubac’s impact and potential on the defensive end.

“Since I have been with him, he’s been trying to learn and get better every day,” said Leonard. “How good he’s going to be is going to be up to him, so that’s a question for him. You have to ask him that and see what type of player he wants to become and if he wants to be an All Star or if he is going to be a guy that is going to rim protect, post moves, I don’t know.”

Zubac came into the league at just 19 years of age, but has been developing into a solid, all-around big man. Through four games, he’s averaging career-highs in points (9.5), blocks (2.0), field-goal percentage (67 percent), and free throw percentage (88 percent) per game.

Even Doc Rivers joked before the game that he forgot just how young Zubac is.

“I actually asked him his age today,” noted Rivers with a smile. “I really did, I’m not kidding. I said, ‘how old are you?’ Because you do need that reminder. He is 22 and I think just because he’s been in the league for three or four years, that he should know and act like a veteran. No, he acts like a 22 year old. And that’s a 22 year old in real life. I’ll let you guys figure it out from there, but he is learning and he’s learning how to work too.”

Zubac is coming off an impressive half-season with the Clippers where he was an immediate upgrade over Marcin Gortat and single-handedly changed the dynamic of the team on both ends.

The Clippers gave him a laundry list of things to do in the offseason, which included losing weight and getting his conditioning up. The team also made a significant investment in Zubac by signing him to a four-year, $28.5 million contract with a team option for the 2022-23 season. Depending on how he develops, this deal could be an overpay or a steal. Thus far, however, Zubac has done everything asked of him.

“You think about the condition he came back in,” Rivers pointed out. “We asked him to get in shape, he did that. Everything we’ve asked him to do, he’s trying to do, and from a coach’s perspective, that’s all you can ask for.”

After Magic Johnson and the Los Angeles Lakers essentially gave up on him at last year’s trade deadline, Zubac now has a legitimate chance to win an NBA Championship before he even enters his prime.

“I think the sky is the limit for him,” vowed Leonard. “He could be a very dominant center.”