LAS VEGAS — One year ago, Ante Zizic arrived in the United States for just the second time in his life, eager to begin what he hoped would be a lengthy and productive career with the Celtics. Of course, Las Vegas is an interesting and overwhelming city to arrive in when you’ve only been to this country once, so Zizic mostly stayed in his hotel room and ordered room service.
But really, his location didn’t matter. All that mattered was that he was here, and that he was ready to chase his NBA dream. The 6-foot-11-inch Croatian had been drafted by Boston in the first round of the 2016 draft, and after spending a season refining his game in Turkey, he signed his rookie deal with the Celtics last July and joined their summer league team.
Zizic’s skills were apparent, but he was fatigued from a lengthy EuroLeague season and unfamiliar with the pace of the game here, so he struggled to keep up. And a month later, as he was preparing for his rookie season with the Celtics, he was suddenly not a Celtic anymore.
Boston traded Zizic, Isaiah Thomas, Jae Crowder, and a pair of draft picks to the Cavaliers for the All-Star point guard Kyrie Irving. If Zizic did not already know that the industry he had chosen can be fickle, he found out quite quickly.
“For me it was different,” Zizic said. “But I was getting better and better, and this year is a lot different story. I prepared through all the season, through the G-League, individual workouts and some NBA games. So I’m more ready right now.”
In the Las Vegas summer league this week, Zizic is averaging 20.5 points and 12.5 rebounds per game while making 63 percent of his field goal attempts, up from 8.7 points and 7.4 rebounds in last year’s event.
Now he is preparing for yet another substantial change as he enters his second season. When he joined the Cavaliers he was initially teammates with former All-Stars LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Kevin Love, Derrick Rose, and Thomas. Of that group, Love is the only one that remains, with James’s departure for the Lakers being the most seismic of them all.
“It was a really interesting year for me,” Zizic said. “I got like four or five All-Stars on the team, great veterans. So all of them are hard workers. You always can ask them if you need advice or whatever. So it was a pleasure to watch LeBron my rookie season and play and share the court with him and the locker room. He’s a great guy and unbelievable player. He’s a guy who never stops. He’s always focused and locked in and he’s a winner.”
Zizic said he learned plenty just by watching James, and he said it was notable that he never really had to ask James for advice, because James was constantly providing it anyway.
When the Celtics and Cavaliers met in the conference finals, Zizic was the only player from last summer’s massive trade who was actually suited up for the games. Thomas had been traded to the Lakers and Crowder had been sent to the Jazz, and Irving was sidelined after undergoing another knee surgery.
And because of James’s stirring playoff run, Zizic became one of the rare players to reach the NBA Finals during his rookie season. Zizic played just five minutes as Cleveland was swept in four games by the Warriors, but he scored the last two baskets of the NBA season in the final minutes of Game 4.
“It felt great,” Zizic said. “I think that’s the dream of every basketball player, playing in the NBA Finals. We lost, which was not good, but it was a great experience. We were close the first game. But it was a special, special experience.”
As next season begins in Cleveland without James, the national television cameras and the sellout crowds will likely be gone, too. But Zizic, who is still just 21, figures to get more opportunities. He still has more of a traditional post game in an era when those players are becoming relics, but he has been working to extend his shooting range. He is also trying to gain speed and quickness to have more defensive versatility.
“It’s going to be time to show that,” Zizic said. “I will go step by step. You can’t start shooting threes after a couple months. I work a lot with my shot and it’s getting better, so hopefully next season I will be better. They’ve got big expectations for me, especially now when LeBron leaves. I expect to play some role, and I’ll be ready.”