NBA Position Battles: Is Rookie Ivica Zubac Ready to Roll for the Los Angeles Lakers?

Zubac has only played 16 games for the Lakers, but he's turning a lot of heads lately.

Rookie Ivica Zubac of the Los Angeles Lakers -- the 32nd overall pick in the 2016 NBA Draft -- is suddenly the talk of the NBA.

Over his last three games, the Bosnia and Herzegovina native has registered two double-doubles, set three consecutive career highs in scoring with 12, 16, and 17 points, and put up noteworthy averages of 15.0 points, 8.7 rebounds, 1.3 assists, and 1.0 block in the process while shooting 54.3% from the field and a perfect 7-for-7 from the free throw line.

Timofey Mozgov has been the Lakers' starting center for all 50 of a possible 51 games he's played so far this year, and Tarik Black has started two games recently at power forward in place of an injured Julius Randle. Zubac has essentially been the third center in the rotation behind Mozgov and Black, respectively, all season, but perhaps it's time for that to change.

Before we dive into the statistics, it's important to note that there is a pretty large discrepancy in minutes played between Mozgov (1,046), Black (617), and Zubac (206). For that reason, all the following numbers we'll be looking at come with a sample size caveat.

Zubac's 206 minutes is typically not enough to make any sweeping conclusions, especially considering they've mostly come against second units or in garbage time. Regardless, if his numbers stay on this pace, they'll soon be hard to dismiss.

In terms of per-36-minute averages, Zubac's been on par with Mozgov and Black so far, even besting them both in free throw percentage, points, assists, and blocks per-36, while keeping pace in rebounds and steals per-36, along with field goal percentage.

Player PTS/36 FG% FT% REB/36 AST/36 STL/36 BLK/36 TOV/36
Timofey Mozgov 13.3 51.4% 79.7% 8.6 1.4 0.6 1.0 2.3
Tarik Black 13.2 51.2% 75.0% 11.9 1.3 0.9 1.2 1.7
Ivica Zubac 15.9 49.4% 86.7% 10.8 1.6 0.7 1.7 2.1

Zubac's per-36 numbers of 15.9 points, 10.8 rebounds, and 1.7 blocks are definitely starter-worthy, and his scores in a selection of widely used one-number advanced metrics suggest he's at least becoming a better option at center than Mozgov, the team's entrenched starter.

Category Timofey Mozgov Tarik Black Ivica Zubac
nERD -2.2 0.6 -0.2
Offensive rating 106 118 107
Defensive rating 114 111 110
Player efficiency rating 12.7 16.1 16.7
Win shares 1.2 1.6 0.3
Win shares per 48 minutes .053 .127 .080
Box plus/minus -3.2 -1.3 -3.4
Value over replacement player -0.3 0.1 -0.1

Mozgov comes dead last in most of the above categories, with the exception of box plus/minus and win shares (where the minutes played discrepancy looms large).

While Zubac is already showing signs of being a better starting option than Mozgov, it's Black who rates out the best in this specific area of our study. He comes first in every advanced stat listed above, with the exception of defensive rating, where Zubac gets the slight edge.

Speaking of defense, when looking at the center position, it's important to consider rim protection. Here are the rim protection numbers for the three centers in question.

Timofey Mozgov 2.8 5.1 54.9%
Tarik Black 2.3 4.2 54.0%
Ivica Zubac 2.4 5.0 47.5%

In this area, Zubac has a clear and definitive edge. He's only allowing opponents to shoot 47.5% at the rim when he's around, which is comparable to All-Defensive Team candidates like Hassan Whiteside (46.1%) and DeAndre Jordan (48.4%), and way ahead of Mozgov and Black.

Finally, it's important to consider how each of the Lakers' center options meshes with the rest of the team's regular starters.

The Lakers have had 16 different starting lineups this year and could very well shuffle the whole deck soon in favor of youth development, but their most-used starters at the other four positions to this point have been D'Angelo Russell, Nick Young, Luol Deng, and Julius Randle.

Here's how Los Angeles has fared this season when these four regular starters have played alongside each of the three center options.

5-Man Lineup MIN Off Rtg Def Rtg Net Rtg REB% eFG%
Russell, Young, Deng, Randle, Mozgov 402 110.9 103.3 7.6 50.3% 53.2%
Russell, Young, Deng, Randle, Black 11 72.0 85.5 -13.4 60.0% 30.4%
Russell, Young, Deng, Randle, Zubac 17 139.8 91.7 48.1 63.6% 58.3%

It goes without saying that these sample sizes are way too far apart in terms of minutes played to use this data to draw any kind of definitive conclusion. The 402 minutes that the regular starters have played alongside Mozgov is a lifetime compared to the 17 played with Zubac and the 11 with Black.

That said, it's still interesting to see how insanely effective the iteration with Zubac has been, even in a small sample.

And that's where we are with Zubac's performance to date. He has looked just as good or better than Mozgov and Black so far, albeit in limited minutes. He might not stand out head and shoulders over the other two guys just yet, but the fact that he's only 19 years old (compared to Mozgov being 30 and Black being 25), there's plenty of reason to believe his recent surge is just a preview of better things to come.

At the end of the day, whether the Lakers are planning to make a playoff push or will soon be ready to shift focus to youth development, Zubac has emerged as the most interesting option at center. His per-36 numbers and advanced metrics put him in the same class as Mozgov and Black at a minimum, while rim protection and lineup data suggest he might already be an even better option than those two veterans, sample size be damned.

Watch out for a #FreeZubac movement, it's about to pick up steam.