Q&A: Ivica Zubac on the return of Kawhi Leonard, the leadership of Paul George

Ivica Zubac has become the Clippers’ reliable, long-term answer in the middle.

LOS ANGELES — Just as he’s felt for the past two seasons, LA Clippers center Ivica Zubac is currently liking the team’s NBA title shots. But Zubac knows those fortunes largely hinge on the Clippers’ health.

In the 2020-21 season, the Clippers advanced to the Western Conference Finals for the first time in franchise history. They then lost to the Phoenix Suns in six games as Leonard stayed out after injuring his left ACL in Game 4 of the Clippers’ second-round series against Utah. In the 2021-22 season, Leonard’s absence for the entire season contributed to the Clippers making the NBA Play-In Tournament an eighth seed, only to lose to New Orleans without George, who tested positive for COVID-19.

During the 2022-23 season, will the Clippers finally be able to keep their coach’s room almost empty?

“We all know we are a better team with healthy Kawhi and PG. That’s what we expect this year,” Zubac told NBA.com. “You can’t just ask yourself, ‘What if we were healthy? Are we going to win a championship or not? It happened, and there’s nothing we can do about it. It’s a new year. Everyone looks good. Everyone looks healthy. I hope this is the year.

Zubac spoke with NBA.com about many topics, including Leonard’s return, George’s leadership and his off-season contract extension. Zubac also brought up coach Tyronn Lue, nicknaming him “Baby Joker” as well as facing former Clippers teammate Patrick Beverley on Thursday against the Los Angeles Lakers (10 ET, TNT).

Editor’s Note: The following one-on-one conversation has been condensed and edited.

NBA.com: How do you rate the Clippers heading into the regular season?

I feel pretty good in the team. I came back in very good shape. I love how we have so many guys who can play. We have one of the deepest teams in the league. We have a lot of wingers, a lot of guys who can hold multiple positions and a lot of talented scorers and playmakers. We now have John Wall. I think we can be really good this year.

What are your impressions of Kawhi so far?

He looks really good. He resembles Kawhi before his injury. He is healthy, strong and fast. He arrives at his places as always. He is a hard worker. He looks like Kawhi.

What jumped out at how Kawhi handled last season with his recovery?

He took care of it like Kawhi. He continued to work hard. He was always around the guys and always on the sidelines. He talks to the coaches about what he sees. He talks to the players about what he sees and what he would like us to do to improve. He helped us a lot on the sidelines. But I’m sure he will help us a lot more this season.

How did he help you last season and during training camp?

Every game, when he saw something, he let me know. Some plays could have been offensive, like punishing a switch. Some games it could have been something defensive, like me being behind on a rotation. Every time he saw something, he would let everyone know.

Kawhi Leonard and Paul George will determine how far the Clippers will go this season.

How have you seen Paul George emerge as a leader and leverage his game?

PG has been one of the leaders since he arrived here. He is becoming more vocal. He is much more comfortable now than when he arrived here. He is our leader in the field. We follow him. He leads by example, and he has become more vocal since last year. He was really good in this role.

What are the things he would talk about?

Can’t say anything special as it was different every day. Whatever he saw, he would not remain silent. He let us know when training wasn’t going as well as it should have been. When we weren’t locked up, he let us know. He will try to push us to be better. Whatever he sees, he will speak.

How would you contextualize what your offseason extension means for you and the Clippers?

I’m glad it happened. I really like it here. Looks like they like me too. I think it’s a perfect place for me. I have great connections here. We are one of the best teams in the league. We are going to have a chance to compete for a title. It’s everything a player is looking for, so I’m glad we were able to do it.

Ty congratulated you on how you’ve grown as a rim protector and improved as a passer. He even called you “Baby Jokic”. How do you see that?

(laughs) That’s great. Ty has been with the team and with me for a while, even before he became head coach. He’s been seeing progress for a while. It’s largely thanks to him. He pushed us. Last season he asked me to do things on the pitch that he hadn’t asked me to do in a while. He involved me more offensively. I think that’s been a big part of my progress.

What contributed to your growth as a rim protector?

It’s just about reading the play before it happens. It depends on who you guard as well as knowing your spots and knowing where you can be on defense. You prepare before the game, learn the games of the opponent and try to see what are the different things that they want from this game. It’s really about reading the game before and having this timing so that you know where they will try to attack. It’s up to whoever gets higher up there, but a lot of it is about timing and knowing what they’re trying to do with their games.

How would you compare the challenges between the defense of Nikola Jokic and Joel Embiid?

They are both really tough. They can do so many things. Jokic is a bit different because you go through a lot of things that you don’t usually do when guarding a cross. They set picks for him, both on pins and flares. He bounces and pushes the ball. They will rise in power [screens]. It’s more difficult for me because they put me in a situation where I’m not usually. But Embiid is also difficult. He’s a big guy. He is strong. When he receives the ball in the post, it’s really difficult to stop him. He can also shoot from the outside. Both are tough matchups. Both are among the best players in the league. And both are MVP candidates.

How did you unexpectedly deal with being asked to guard Luka Doncic when you faced the Mavs last season?

Ty believes in me. The first game, Luka did a lot of hard knocks, but Ty didn’t give up on me. He said, ‘You’re going to keep it again and you did a good job. He was hitting hard. Ty stayed with me. In the second game, it was much better. He’s that kind of coach. He believes in me no matter what. He sees me every day and he knows what I can do. Even if there are one or two games where I might not be as good as I can be, he will always believe in me.

What was the gossip like with Patrick Beverley after the Lakers acquired him in the offseason?

He always talks about rubbish. You know how Pat is doing. We talk all the time. Pat will always be my man. I’m glad he’s in Los Angeles. It’s going to be fun to play them on premiere night. It will be fun to play them all season long. They have a good team. It’s funny. I’m happy for him. I think it will be a good place for him.

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Mark Medina is a senior writer/analyst for NBA.com. You can email him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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