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2017-18 Cleveland Cavaliers Player Preview: Ante Zizic

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Can Ante Zizic steal minutes from the Cavaliers other bigs?

NBA: Cleveland Cavaliers-Press Conference Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports

Despite being one of the most stable positions for the Cleveland Cavaliers over the last half-decade or so, the team will start its fourth center in four years when the season kicks off in a couple weeks. There was fan favorite Anderson Varejao. Then there was fan favorite Timofey Mozgov. Last year there was author-favorite Tristan Thompson. This year there will be Kevin Love.

It’s been stable largely because of the omni-presence of Tristan Thompson, now the longest tenured Cavalier by his lonesome. Thompson has been an ironman at the most physical position in the league, an asset that perhaps isn’t quite as valued as it should be. As a starter for the first time at that position (he was a power forward earlier in his career) Thompson handled himself fairly well. He posted a career high field goal percentage of 60, and pulled down more offensive rebounds than he had in years. He handed out more assists and didn’t turn the ball over more, and he blocked significantly more shots than he had in the immediate years prior.

He also got hurt for the first time in years and missed games. His free throw percentage suffered. He scored fewer points than he had since his rookie season. He seemed worn down at the end of the Cavs’ playoff run, and struggled to rebound. He figured to continue on as the team’s starting center for this upcoming season, but there was a hope that his minutes could be managed a bit better.

The fix appears to be Kevin Love. He will start at center, with newly acquired Jae Crowder sliding into the power forward role, and LeBron James ... well, probably playing a little bit of every position. This is, within reason, a great solution. Kevin Love shouldn’t spend a ton of regular season minutes banging down low, and having Thompson to fight for rebounds and put in that tough work with him probably saves him some energy. But in a league that has changed, Kevin Love as a stretch center makes a lot of sense. Tyronn Lue gets most of his praise for the way he manages egos, but he’s also extremely flexible and has moved with the league.

But what about Ante Zizic? Presumably you clicked on this article to read about him. Does the rookie Croatian have a role? Kevin Love having an official role at center doesn’t bode well. Channing Frye continuing to exist and be a member of the Cleveland Cavaliers doesn’t help him. But this is also not a Sasha Kaun situation. Zizic is an actual, real prospect. He’ll play this year. It might be 15 games. It might be 45 games. But the Cavs have a young prospect they need to take a real look at.

Zizic is 6’11, 250 pounds, and by all accounts has a fantastic motor. He played in Turkey under David Blatt last year, and did so because he wanted a coach who had proven himself in the NBA. Zizic wants to play in the United States, and should come to Cleveland with a tremendous work ethic.

He’ll get to practice with Love and Thompson, but what kind of on court impact can he make? Because, while nearly everyone around the kid ends up raving about him, Zizic also won’t turn 21 until January. He’ll be learning a new culture, he’s already been traded, and it’s a league that is notoriously difficult for young bigs to gain solid footing in. Heck, we watched Tristan Thompson struggle to put it together. It’s unclear, to my mostly untrained eye, if he has enough athleticism. The league is just getting quicker and quicker.

The Cavs clearly want to protect Tristan Thompson this year. They should know not to push Kevin Love further than they need to. Channing Frye straddles the line of unplayable and playable. Hopefully Zizic performs well enough in training camp to earn a look. It might not be in October or November, but he’ll soak up some minutes at some point.

If Cavs fans know anything, looking for progress from young guys runs the gamut of emotions. Sometimes it’s fun, and you get excited about the big dunk or block. Other times you shake your head. Playing with LeBron James theoretically helps. Zizic is a real prospect. Hopefully the Cavs use him to protect Love and Thompson, while learning a little more about what they have in the big Croatian.