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This time a year ago, Ante Zizc was playing summer-league ball for the Boston Celtics.
Drafted in the first round by Boston in the 2016 draft, Zizic spent a season working on his game in Turkey before signing his rookie contract with the Celtics and joining them last summer.
A month later, he was on his way to Cleveland, the least-known name of the three players sent to the Cavaliers for All-Star point guard Kyrie Irving, the others being Isaiah Thomas and Jae Crowder. Boston included two draft picks, one of which has turned into Collin Sexton.
Zizic, a 6-foot-11, 250-pound center from Crotia, spent last season playing for the Cavaliers and the G League Canton Charge.
He flashed during some games with the Cavaliers, playing 32, starting two, and averaging 3.7 points and 1.9 rebounds in 6.7 minutes. Zizic also showed solid footwork and a soft touch, shooting 73.1 percent from the field and 72.4 percent from the free-throw line.
The 21-year-old Zizic said the experience was beneficial.
“For me it was different,” Zizic told Adam Himmelsbach of the Boston Globe. “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.”
Zizic’s play for Cleveland in the Las Vegas Summer League certainly backs that up. He has averaged 20.5 points and 12.5 boards a game, showing off the same shooting touch he displayed during his limited time in the NBA as a rookie, making 63 percent of his field-goal attempts. Zizic averaged 8.7 points and 7.4 rebounds in Las Vegas last summer for Boston.
He did not play in Cleveland’s 92-87 win over Houston on Saturday in Las Vegas and will also miss a quarterfinal clash with the Toronto Raptors on Sunday as he has been excused by the Cavaliers to leave the team to watch his native Croatia play the World Cup championship match against France in Russia.
In his rookie season, Zizic was a teammate of current or former All-Stars LeBron James, Kevin Love, Dwyane Wade, Derrick Rose and Thomas.
“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.”
James, specifically, had an effect on the young big man.
“It was a pleasure to watch LeBron my rookie season and play and share the court with him and the locker room,” he said. “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 and the Cavaliers were swept in the NBA Finals by the Golden State Warriors. Still, he relished the experience of being part of such a high-stakes, pressure-packed environment as a rookie.
“It felt great,” Zizic, who played sparingly but scored four points in the waning moments go Game 4 at Quicken Loans Arena, 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.”
While possessing good low-post moves, Zizic knows he must work on other aspects of his game — speed and quickness, specifically — to adapt to the way the game is played today.
“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.”