LAS VEGAS — Ante Zizic is a 6-foot-11-inch, 255-pound force who figures only to get stronger and more powerful, because he is still just 20 years old. But the skills of the Celtics’ Croatian rookie have been a bit of a conundrum for his summer league teammates this month.
In today’s NBA, the trend is for big men to be fast-running, floor-spacing threats capable of attacking from all angles. Zizic, for now, is more of a throwback. Compared with others, he may appear almost clumsy, but it is more than he is just learning to mesh his game with a style that remains unfamiliar.
As Celtics coach Brad Stevens watched summer league games in Salt Lake City and Las Vegas, he realized the other Celtics were not utilizing Zizic as they should. Yes, he was struggling a bit, sometimes appearing winded and overwhelmed by the pace. But his difficulties were being exacerbated by teammates who did not grasp his strengths. So Stevens explained his strengths to them more clearly.
“If Ante’s got his guy sealed on the block you have to throw him the ball,” Stevens said. “If Ante’s rolling to the rim, don’t throw it at his ankles; put it up in the air.”
Watch Ante Zizic drive for slam
After the Celtics defeated the 76ers on Tuesday, Stevens pointed to one play in which point guard Demetrius Jackson threw a nice lob to Zizic for a dunk as an example of mutual growth. He added that Zizic is eager to tussle for offensive rebounds, so there is value in firing up a floater and giving him a chance.
“It’s hard to come in and all of a sudden you’ve been a roller and post player your whole life, and we’re throwing you the ball at 27 feet and trying to be Al Horford,” Stevens said. “That’s not who he is. Nor will we ask him to be that.”
The Celtics selected Zizic with the 23rd overall pick of the 2016 draft. He spent last season playing for the Turkish club Darussafaka Dogus, which was guided by former Cleveland Cavaliers coach David Blatt.
Zizic was a force in the Euroleague, which is the second-highest level of basketball in the world. His rebounding percentage of 19.39 would have led the Celtics and would have ranked 16th in the NBA last season.
Since rebounding was one of the Celtics’ greatest deficiencies, the hope was that Zizic would immediately provide resistance in the paint. But he has learned quickly that the game is different here, both in skill level and style.
“In Europe, you can’t grab guys and it’s much easier to rebound,” he said, “so sometimes I forget on that rule that I’m OK. Here, you can grab more.”
Zizic appears to be learning quickly, however. He had 9 points, 11 rebounds, and 4 blocks in a win over the Trail Blazers on Monday, and 12 points and 13 rebounds against the 76ers on Tuesday, and 14 points and 10 rebounds in just 17 minutes in a win over the Warriors on Thursday.
“I just want to keep working my job, do the dirty work, set screens, rebound, and finish the easy baskets around the rim,” Zizic said. “I think I can do much more than that, but right now that’s my role, and I think I do that well.”
Stevens said Zizic has appeared “gassed” during summer league. It is partly because he is adjusting to this new, more rapid pace. But it is also because he just recently completed a long, grueling season overseas and arrived in Boston just a few days before summer practices began.
“Sure, I’m tired,” Zizic said. “Last year I started preparations in the middle of July and all season I played in like six, seven different leagues. Now after everything I played like 10 months in a row without a break. I skip only three games the whole season and play more than 90 games. So sure I’m tired and need a little rest but right now I enjoy it. I’m really happy because I’m in summer league. It is great preparation for the NBA.”
Celtics assistant Walter McCarty, who is guiding the team in Las Vegas, said Zizic’s improvement over just the past two weeks has been noticeable. Zizic is making decisions more quickly and not getting flustered when he is pressured by a defender. On defense, he is learning that when he helps a teammate, he must quickly then recover back to his man.
“He’s getting it,” McCarty said. “He’s much better than he was earlier, so we’re not trying to rush him. We’re just trying to take his time and let him continue to keep building confidence. He’s progressing, and it’s fun to see.”