There are two Croatian centers in play for a late 1st-round draft position in the 2016 NBA Draft. Both Ivica Zubac and Ante Zizic started the year with Cibona Zagreb, competing for playing time on Croatia’s best developmental squad. And while we broke down Zubac’s NBA-ready game last week, Zizic was the one Cibona tabbed to play starter’s minutes, eventually leading to Zubac’s decision to leave the team, among other reasons.
Since then, Zizic has been a monster for the Adriatic League’s 8th-place team. Zizic led them in scoring (13.4 ppg), rebounding (8.0 rpg), and blocks (1.4 bpg), while shooting 63.9 percent from the field. This was one of the most productive seasons ever posted in the Adriatic league by a player under 20 years old, which propelled Zizic into the draft discussion.
However, despite Zizic’s production, there are major questions about how he translates to the next level. Zizic excels offensively at the European level, but there’s significant reason to believe that he won’t have the same success against NBA opponents. He has a ways to go defensively, and his overall game suits the European style much better than the NBA’s. Still, though, it’s hard to deny that Zizic is posting a more efficient season than nearly every under-22 European prospect, including future Philadelphia 76er and former teammate Dario Saric. Even more impressive, is that he’s doing this at just age 19.
Can Zizic continue to grow, or is he destined to be a career European player?
Zizic’s mobility and touch around the rim help him to post his sky-high field goal percentage. He’s excellent on the break and out of the pick-and-roll, and he’s not one to shy away from contact at the rim. Zizic posted a fairly absurd free throw rate of .774, and he’s great at finishing through contact in transition or the halfcourt. Zizic isn’t a great overall athlete, but he uses his length well to finish, and he has good footwork in the pick-and-roll, allowing him to get plenty of free looks at the rim.
Zizic’s best skill is his offensive rebounding, which is also his single best NBA skill. Averaging nearly three offensive boards per game, Zizic loves to battle underneath for positioning and he has a great nose for the ball, even on long rebounds that fall away from his original position. He uses his lower body well to establish position and he has a great motor, rebounding a high amount of his own misses and tying up defenders if he loses out on a ball. Zizic is dominant on the offensive glass, which is going to be a key area for him in the NBA, as he may be forced to get a higher percentage of his offense off of putbacks.
Zizic’s production is a product more of high energy and motor than finesse, and while that’s going to likely earn him rotation minutes early on in his career, he will need to improve on several areas to have that offensive promise continue to blossom. The most pressing issue for him to work on is his feel for the game. Zizic often has one speed offensively — that is “fast and reckless.” This can be great when he’s throwing down a dunk on a fast break, but too often Zizic gets ahead of himself when he gets the ball. He isn’t a great passer, and he averaged 2.4 turnovers per game to just nine total assists this season because he has a tendency to miss open teammates and make careless outlet passes because he’s rushing the break. Zizic also struggles in the post because of his timing, too often spinning into double teams or pushing a shot too far or too short because he isn’t under control.
Part of this is being 19, of course, but Zizic’s decision-making with the ball does need some improvement.
Zizic also hasn’t shown to be a consistent shooter from any range, even though his mechanics suggest this is an area he should be able to grow in. Zizic is a career 74 percent free throw shooter (which is great because he gets fouled a lot), but his nice release hasn’t materialized into a jumper he can make beyond 10 feet. Zizic’s release is very soft and has high arc, and you can see how it might be a weapon if he gets a little space.
But his shot is a little flat because he doesn’t get a lot of lift, and he can rush it if he feels pressure. His shooting will likely need some work for him to be a real weapon offensively.
Zizic brings great energy on the defensive side of the ball. While not the most technically sound defender, Zizic won’t shy away from switching and guarding the perimeter, even if his opponent has a decided speed advantage against him. He’s very active on the defensive side of the ball, and he coordinates the pick-and-roll well, making solid decisions when switching or sitting back to contain penetration.
Zizic also will have some success as a post defender because he’s strong and tough. Often Zizic will throw guys off the block, using his hands to actively deny position while clearing space with his lower body. He’s comfortable defending the post out to 18 feet, too, which will allow him to comfortably defend the more prevalent high-post game in the NBA. And despite his physicality, Zizic isn’t foul prone, committing just 3.3 fouls per 36 minutes last season.
Fundamentally, though, Zizic has some growing to do. While he’s eager to defend on the perimeter, he can get blown by defending quicker forwards, because he doesn’t have the best sense of positioning against isolations and he will get happy feet. He does a great job of understanding basic defensive concepts (i.e., shading to force a right-handed ball-handler left), but if someone gets a step on him, he struggles to recover.
Zizic also isn’t a great help defender, and it’s hard to see him translating into being a rim-protection threat at the next level. Zizic can get lost on off-ball action and he’s slow to rotate, because he isn’t the most fluid player in lateral movement. Too often Zizic will head in the right direction but be a step slow because his lateral shuffle move is too deliberate, and he’s forced to rely on his length to bother shots rather than positioning. This works fine against Adriatic league guards, who attack more in straight line drives than off-ball cuts, but Zizic’s slow rotations are a recipe for him to get dunked on against more sophisticated NBA offenses. He does well enough against European opponents, but it’ll be interesting to see how he deals with the size and athleticism upgrades in the NBA.
Zizic has been impressive this year in Europe, but I struggle to see how he’s ever anything more than an energy guy in the NBA. Unlike Zubac, who’s skill set projects to play like a more modern NBA five, Zizic seems tailor-made for the European game and might struggle to have the same offensive success in the NBA as a fourth or fifth option.
It’s worth noting that at the FIBA U-19 World Championships last summer, Zizic really was bothered by the length of current UCLA backup forward Thomas Welsh when Croatia played the U.S. in group play, and got shown up by Zubac and power forward Marko Arapovic, as both flourished after Zizic was sidelined with a groin injury and helped Croatia storm to the final. Zizic also doesn’t have an NBA buyout this summer, meaning he’s a draft-and-stash guy for at least one season.
You can’t deny Zizic’s production for his age and there’s promise because of that that he will continue to develop as an overall difference maker at the five. But to me, Zizic seems more likely to be a 2nd-round pick, and his game projects better to be a dominant force in Europe. While Zubac fits the mold of a Timofey Mozgov or Tiago Splitter, Zizic might end up more like Milan Macvan or Georgis Printezis as a solid veteran overseas.