Prior to the 2018-2019 NBA season kicking off, Cavaliers head coach Tyronn Lue revealed how he would rotate the Cavs’ big men. Against more traditional, bigger centers, Tristan Thompson would start. When Cleveland plays a smaller, quicker center, Larry Nance Jr. will take the assignment.
This is a very good idea and it shows that Lue is capable of making adjustments and changing his scheme to adapt to different players and matchups, something that he rarely did while the Cavaliers were title contenders. However, Thompson and Nance aren’t the only centers that Lue needs to give minutes to. Second-year seven-footer Ante Zizic desperately needs playing time, and based on the first three games, it doesn’t look like he’ll be seeing the floor as much as he should.
Nance missed the first two games with a sprained ankles, so Thompson has started each of the first three matches. The opposing centers in those three games have been Jonas Valanciunas, Karl-Anthony Towns, and Alex Len, all of whom stand at least seven feet tall, so it makes sense that Thompson would get the start against them.
Thompson is a more physical player than Nance is, but Thompson is still only 6’9″. His effort can only get him so far. That’s why having a young player such as Zizic is so beneficial. He is 6’11” and has performed well against top centers such as Valanciunas and Andre Drummond. Yet, he has played only 29 minutes thus far, and that’s with Nance sidelined for two games. In that limited time, Zizic has 16 points, seven rebounds, four assists, and one steal.
Those numbers aren’t All-Star level, but they are still solid. At 21 years old, Zizic should be getting around 20 minutes per game not only to speed up his development, but also because he provides something that no other Cavalier can; size. It’s true that the modern NBA has moved away from traditional centers and towards floor-spacing big men, but that doesn’t render a classic center useless. In fact, often times having a seven-footer can allow a team to exploit an opponent’s weakness.
For example, the Golden State Warriors haven dominated the NBA for the past four seasons, but they have had one weakness; the lack of a true center. Draymond Green is a great player, but he is barely 6’7″. This is why a player such as DeMarcus Cousins was so attractive to teams wanting to challenge Golden State; he had the size and physicality to dominate Green in the post. Now, that weakness is gone, with Cousins a member of the team.
The Cavs no longer have to worry about countering Golden State’s moves, but they should try to exploit any advantage they have. And against many teams, that advantage is going to be size. Zizic is still incredibly raw, but he has the potential to be an All-Star level player. Few big men have an offensive game as smooth as his. Zizic is a master at getting defenders to bite on a fake, and has a deadly up-and-under move that allowed him to shoot an astounding 73% from the field last season. So far in 2018, that number is at 67%, still fantastic.
Zizic’s inexperience means he isn’t as good a defender as he needs to be. This is something that he must fix, but it won’t happen unless he gets game reps. 9.7 minutes per game is fine for an end-of-the-bench reserve, but Zizic needs to have a much larger role. The Kyrie Irving trade is already a disaster, and it will be even worse for Cleveland if Zizic never amounts to anything. He will never become the player he is capable of leaving if he isn’t given minutes.
The Cavaliers are attempting to make a playoff push, which is why Tristan Thompson is playing 30 minutes per night. However, even if the Cavs are in the middle of playoff race at some point during this season, Zizic needs to play more. He can certainly help this team, and it’s not like Thompson is an offensive powerhouse. This isn’t to say that Thompson shouldn’t play at all, or that Zizic should be starting in place of him.
There needs to be a balance between the three players, and at times, playing Zizic with Nance could be advantageous. There isn’t an excuse for why Zizic is playing under 10 minutes per game. He is too talented to sit on the bench and too important to Cleveland’s future to not see more time.
Now, the Cavs have played only three games so it’s too early to judge Lue’s rotation, but with Nance out for the first two games, it seems like that would have been the perfect time for Zizic to play more.
Lue’s strategy of starting Thompson or Nance depending on the matchup is the right move, but that doesn’t mean he should give all of the center minutes to just those two players. Ante Zizic needs more playing time, both for now and for the future.