The 2016 NBA Draft is chock full of mystery men, and most of those players can be found at the taller end of the spectrum. Two of those players, Ivica Zubac and Ante Zizic, could be available when the Phoenix Suns select at Nos. 28 and 34.
But does that mean the Suns should take one if the opportunity presents itself? Here is a look at each player's strengths and weaknesses and how each would fit with the Suns.
Ivica Zubac, a 19-year-old center from Bosnia and Herzegovina who played last season for Mega Leks, is just one of several international question marks in this year's draft. His physical stats (7'1, 265lbs) are clearly NBA caliber, but as history has shown time and again, size does not equate to ability. (Where is Hasheem Thabeet, anyway?)
Zubac is a self-described back-to-the-basket center, and his offensive game backs this up. Most of his shot attempts come from the paint, and while he shows some impressive footwork and touch around the basket — especially for his age — he tends to struggle against players who can match his physicality and size. Zubac does project well as a capable pick-and-roll player down the road with his mobility, but he offers zero pick-and-pop option at the moment.
Defense is a bigger area of concern for Zubac. It can be forgiven that a teenager might not have a firm grasp of defensive fundamentals (which he doesn't), but usually one would expect a 7'1 player to compensate for that with a natural ability to block and alter shots. However, Zubac is not a gifted shot blocker despite his 7'4 wingspan, owing to a combination of those poor fundamentals from before and a lack of spring off the court. Compounding that problem is his defensive awareness, or lack thereof. His attention seems to come and go on that end of the floor, and he doesn't possess the athletic gifts to atone for those moments. He has the foot speed and size to be an effective defender from mid-range in, but he is not there yet.
As a rebounder, Zubac shows ability — especially on the offensive glass — but again does most of his work with his size instead of sound fundamentals like putting a body on a man and boxing out. He plays like someone who has been bigger and stronger than his competition for most of his life, and that will not be the case when he makes the jump to the NBA. He can improve those fundamentals, but it would be nice to see him further along than he is.
Ultimately, his ceiling is probably that of a more athletic Todd MacCulloch or perhaps as a Tiago Splitter type for a more contemporary reference point. He is unlikely to ever become more than a role player, as he lacks any single defining skill to lean on. Had he been born 15 years earlier, his place in the NBA would have been assured, but with the changing game, his old school skill set makes him a 19-year-old dinosaur who will have to evolve or face the extinction of his NBA dream.
Ante Zizic is the other Balkan Big Man projected to be drafted in the mid-to-late first round. A 6'11 center from Croatia, at 19 Zizic is among the youngest players available in the draft, like Zubac.
Unlike Zubac, who bounced around many teams this year in the Adriatic League before settling into a starting role with Mega Leks, Zizic has been a heavy part of the starting center rotation for Cibona Zagreb for almost two years now.
This season, Zizic averaged 13 points, 8 rebounds and a block in around 25 minutes per game in Adriatic League play. In the (ostensibly) higher level FIBA Europe Cup, he put up similar numbers, averaging 16 points, 8 rebounds and a block. These averages are also consistent with what he put up the year before with Cibona.
At this point, Zizic is considered an energy and athleticism prospect. His offensive game is tied to his ability to make cuts to the basket, and a strong ability to finish at and near the rim. This translates to high shooting percentages, but also to a high number of free throw attempts for a center, which he converts at around a 70% clip.
It seems clear that Zizic will need to develop a better midrange game and a better back to the basket game to be an effective player in today's NBA. The high free throw shooting percentage leads me to believe he can achieve the first. Whether he can develop a real back to the basket game remains an open question. He has the athleticism, but much of that skillset is dependent on mental awareness, and that is hard to gauge in a 19-year-old.
Defensively, Zizic plays with grit and energy, and is a willing banger. He's a bit of a ball hawk on the boards, which is good and bad, as it can at times lead him to abandoning his box-out responsibilities. He does not offer much in terms of passing lane disruption, and frankly his shot-blocking numbers are a little bit lower than I would expect given his athleticism and his general energy level on the court. This adds fuel to the earlier mentioned concerns about his on-court awareness.
Overall, Zizic is an interesting draft and stash candidate in the late first round. Because he does not have a summer buyout clause in his contract, he will definitely be spending at least the next season playing in Europe.
Should the Suns bite?
Probably not. Neither fills a pressing need for the team with two centers already in the mix, but of the two, Zizic makes more sense. Even with questionable growth potential compared to Zubac, Zizic could provide a team with 5-10 minutes of energy off the bench, and coaches love guys who come into the game and make a difference. Zubac does not bring that same skill set. His best attribute at present is his post game, and with the Suns not playing a post-heavy style, he would be relegated to being a pick-and-roll player, which is not yet a true strength.
However, with neither player clearly better than Phoenix's incumbents (Tyson Chandler and Alex Len for Zubac and Alan Williams for Zizic), it would be wise for Ryan McDonough to look elsewhere with those later picks.