While last season was very much about the Los Angeles Lakers developing their young core, the focus has since shifted to how Lonzo Ball, Josh Hart, Brandon Ingram and Kyle Kuzma could help support LeBron James on a team with playoff hopes.
The process of James and his new teammates forming chemistry has been interrupted on multiple occasions, first because of suspension Ingram and Rajon Rondo received, then due to a sprained ankle Ingram sustained.
Now, James (strained groin) and Rondo (surgery) are sidelined themselves. So too has JaVale McGee as he’s battled flu-like symptoms and pneumonia. He’s missed the past seven games and is considered a game-time decision for Sunday’s matchup with the Sacramento Kings.
More has fallen on Ball, Ingram and Kuzma since James and Rondo have been out, while Ivica Zubac has filled in admirably at center for McGee. Tyson Chandler also missed one game because of back spams.
Although he has been unable to play himself, McGee said his message his message to the young Lakers has been to remain prepared. “With LeBron, there’s some points out there that need to be made up, so that’s an opportunity for some players. With Rondo, there’s assists that need to be made up,” McGee said after shootaround.
“I feel like Zo’s been really stepping up. Damn near had a triple-double; He had one, they took it away. I don’t know how you do that. They don’t bring my blocks back when I get goaltends, so why would they take away his rebound? But yeah, I’m really impressed by the way these guys have been playing.”
While Zubac was in the midst of providing back-to-back impressive starts, he lent credit to teammates for remaining confident in him, and specifically named motivation and leadership provided by McGee.
“It’s been amazing,” McGee said of Zubac’s recent stretch. “I’ve been on him since the beginning of the season, when everyone doubted him, saying he wasn’t able to play, he wasn’t ready. I’ve been in his ear constantly, like, ‘You’re a beast. I know what you can do.’
“I can just see it in him. The thing about it is, from a personal standpoint and being a big man, it’s confidence over anything. When somebody is telling you you ain’t [expletive] for years, you’re going to believe you ain’t [expletive]. If somebody is behind you and telling you you’re great, you’re going to play like it.”
Zubac had an encouraging showing as a rookie but regressed last season. His opportunities before McGee falling ill were limited, but Lakers head coach Luke Walton has taken notice and commended the young center for capitalizing on his increased playing time.
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