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It’s been speculated since Kevin Love, Tristan Thompson and then Larry Nance Jr. went down with injuries that the Cleveland Cavaliers would have to go to the NBA scrap-heap in search of a big guy.
Turns out, they had one on their roster all along.
Rookie Ante Zizic, considered a throw-in as part of the Kyrie Irving deal Aug. 22, had yet another solid performance Monday night in helping the Cavaliers get past the Milwaukee Bucks, 124-117, at Quicken Loans Arena.
Zizic had 13 points, on 4-of-6 shooting from the field and a perfect 5-of-5 from the free-throw line, and had six boards, including four on the offensive end and a blocked shot, all in only 17 minutes of court time.
Even though Love made his return against the Bucks after missing 21 games with a broken left hand, with Thompson’s return imminent and Nance being listed as day-to-day, Zizic has made a strong case to remain part of the rotation going forward.
His 13 points makes it four times in his last five games Zizic has scored in double figures. Conversely, one of the guys whom for he’s filling in, Thompson, has reached double figures eight times in 42 games, averaging 21.4 minutes to Zizic’s 6.2 minutes.
Over the last five games, Zizic has averaged 10.6 points, 4.6 rebounds and 1.4 blocks, shooting 23-of-30 (76.7) from the field and 7-of-10 from the line in only 15.4 minutes.
In his last eight games, Zizic’s numbers are 8.5 points and 4.1 rebounds, shooting 78.9 percent from the field in 13.8 minutes per game.
Associate head coach Larry Drew said he an head coach Tyronn Lue will be talking about Zizic and how to make sure he continues to receive minutes going forward.
— FOX Sports Ohio (@FOXSportsOH) March 20, 2018
“Well certainly what Z has done in the last couple of weeks that he’s been playing, he has shown that he deserves to be out on the floor,” Drew said. “Getting Tristan back, right now not really knowing how we’re going to juggle this thing, but I will say it’s a nice problem to have. We haven’t had that luxury.
“But the things that Z does on the floor, first of all he’s big and he’s real active around the glass. He gets his hands on a lot of balls and he’s a good finisher around the basket. But that’s a nice problem to have because he has certainly shown over the last couple of weeks that he deserves to play. That’s something we as a staff, we’re going to have to make some decisions.”
Zizic has made huge strides since receiving a spot start against Philadelphia, which features All-Stat center Joel Embiid, back on Dec. 9.
That night, Zizic was clearly overmatched and pulled from the game, not to return, after playing only the first 4:38 of the game. At that point, the Cavaliers trailed by 10, but rallied to win the game, 105-98.
In hindsight, thrusting a raw, untested rookie into the starting lineup, and going against a player the caliber of Embiid — pretty much only because he’s 6-foot-11, 251 pounds — was probably not a prudent decision.
“He was in a tough situation,” Drew said. “Throwing him in and playing him three or four minutes, it’s hard to get a rhythm when you’re put in a game like that. What we’ve asked him to do when we put him in the game, he has done it. Just given what the situation is now, we need him to play just because we’re limited as far as big bodies are concerned.
“He’s been able to play and get into some sort of a rhythm. The rest of the guys are looking for him when he’s rolling to the basket. As I mentioned before, he’s a good finisher around the basket with both hands.”
Drew said Zizic was at the ready when his number was (finally) called, pretty much out of necessity. The Cavaliers were simply out of bodies.
“What he’s done, he’s really taken advantage of an opportunity,” Drew said. “We tell our guys all the time, especially guys who don’t play a lot of minutes, ‘you have to be ready at all times because you just never know when your number is going to get called.’
“We’ve been unfortunate, kind of riddled with the injury bug and he’s had to play. And he’s responded extremely well.”
After every practice, Zizic stays on the floor and gets in extra work with Cavaliers Assistant Director of Player Development Vitaly Potapenko, himself a former Cavalier, taken with the 12th overall pick in the 1996 draft.
Zizic has also spent extensive time playing with the Canton Charge in the G League, playing big minutes and gaining experience which has proven to be invaluable to not only his development, but also his confidence.
“I think he can really help us,” Love said. “He’s 21 years old, wants to learn, has played extended minutes and has been able to be productive in those minutes. Super efficient.
“We love what he does. He’s a big man and right now, missing T-Top and Larry is tough for us, so having him out there is nice.”