The Boston Celtics have received some scrutiny for their prospects’ lack of development over the past few seasons. The Celtics have done a fantastic job of accumulating draft picks since the days of the Boston Three Party, but their track record with those picks is very spotty. They’ve unearthed a few nice players, like Kelly Olynyk and Marcus Smart, but they’ve also struggled to make anything out of guys like Fab Melo and R.J. Hunter. The inability to consistently turn those picks into substance has likely been an impediment towards their search for a star to take them over the top.
In 2016, the Celtics tried a different approach with the No. 23 pick in the draft. They took Ante Zizic, a massive center from Croatia. And rather than bring him over immediately, they let him stay in Croatia and develop with his home team, KK Cibona. The Celtics had previously been very hesitant to go the draft-and-stash route, but with three picks in the draft (including No. 3 pick Jaylen Brown), the Celtics felt they had a good opportunity to save cap space and try a new approach.
So far, that decision seems to be paying off. Zizic has far and away been the best young player in Europe, carrying Cibona to a 6-2 record in the competitive Adriatic League. He’s also been one of the FIBA Champions League’s most productive players, averaging 19 points and seven rebounds through four contests. He’s averaging 20.6 points, 8.5 rebounds, and 1.5 blocks per game overall, highlighted by a monster 37-point, 20-rebound performance in a double-overtime game against Skopje Aerodrom last month. In 2015-16, he posted one of the most efficient seasons ever by an under-21 European player and now he’s somehow outperforming that efficiency this year.
In terms of style, Zizic hasn’t changed much from the pre-draft assessment of his game. He gets a vast majority of his points at the rim, either via pick-and-roll or offensive rebounds. Zizic has fantastic mobility to go along with his 6-foot-11, 254-pound frame, and he finds open space on rolls or along the baseline. He finishes through contact very well, and that combination of skills has let him shoot 66.4 percent from the field this year.
Zizic also has been an impressive rebounder this year, posting a defensive rebound rate of 25.7 percent and a total rebound rate of 18.7 percent. He does a good job of using his mobility to find space in the paint, and his length and strength allow him to seal opponents off and gobble rebound chances under the basket. He leads the Adriatic League in rebounding by a full rebound per game, and he allows Cibona’s trigger-happy guards to fire away from deep, knowing that there’s a vacuum cleaner under the basket to take care of misses.
The major upgrade in Zizic’s game has been on the defensive end, where he’s begun to show the capability to be an NBA-level defensive player. Zizic’s always had tools thanks to his mobility and footwork in the pick-and-roll, but he’s making better decisions on attacking opposing drives and entry passes, and has been much more disruptive overall this season.
Now, Zizic is putting up huge numbers in Croatia, and based on numbers alone, he looks like he should be a key player in the Celtics’ future plans. That logic isn’t completely wrong, as Zizic can potentially rebound and protect the rim, two things that will continue to be major questions with Olynyk and Al Horford in the frontcourt. But Zizic posting big numbers overseas will not necessarily equate to similar production in the NBA. Zizic still projects as a role player in the NBA; a very good one, but a role player nonetheless.
For one, Zizic will be limited offensively. He is great at the things he’s good at, but he offers almost nothing away from the rim outside of setting screens. He’s not a shooter beyond the restricted area, and he’s not a passer, posting just a 7.7 percent assist rate on a 26.1 percent usage rate. Zizic still struggles with decision-making with the ball in his hands, and he can be a turnover machine if he’s walled off from the middle of the paint. His post moves also need continued development. He has one favorite move — a lefty spin move away from pressure — and his lack of more advanced moves will hurt him here in the NBA.
There’s also something to be said for Zizic’s size advantage in the ABA, and how that influences his numbers. Zizic is one of the three or four biggest players in the entire league, and he is definitely the most athletic member of that group. That’s partially the reason for his gaudy stats, as it’s much easier for him to rely on length and mobility to beat pick-and-roll coverage or establish inside position than it will be for him in the NBA. He’s also averaging 8.6 free throw attempts per game, a rate which is certainly a product of his size advantage. He is fantastic at drawing fouls with quick moves, and he does shoot 80.2 percent from the line, which is nice. But those opportunities will shrink against more athletic and disciplined defenders.
Even with those things in mind, there’s still plenty for Celtics fans to get excited about with Zizic. He’s insanely productive on every level his team competes at, and he’s best at two things the Celtics desperately need to get over the top to full-fledged contender status. Zizic may not be a guy who can give you 20-and-10 in the NBA, but he projects to be one of the league’s better energy bigs, a guy who can come off the bench and give opposing bench bigs 15-20 minutes of absolute hell on the glass and in the pick-and-roll. The Celtics may not hit on every draft pick they make, but it has appeared this fall that they’re going to hit on their third pick from the 2016 Draft.