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Cleveland Cavaliers player preview: Ante Zizic

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Ante Zizic will be looking to prove he’s an NBA rotation player this year. But will he get a chance?

Cleveland Cavaliers Media Day Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images

Cedi Osman and Collin Sexton stole the show during the Cleveland Cavaliers’ Summer League run. The former showed solid signs of improvement and looked too good to be there; the latter was the 8th pick in the 2018 NBA Draft, and was the main event people were tuning in for. But if you looked beyond those two, the positive indicators for Ante Zizic in his second Summer League appearance were just as exciting as watching Osman and Sexton.

Zizic only played in two games — he was granted a release to go home to watch Croatia in the World Cup Final — but he was pretty impactful in both. Against Washington, he posted 16 points, 14 rebounds, and five assists in 27 minutes of action. He followed that up with a 25-point, 11-rebound performance on 11-14 shooting against Wendell Carter Jr. and the Bulls. This was a far cry from his first appearance with Boston, where he averaged 8.7 points per game and looked absolutely lost throughout most of the Las Vegas tournament.

Zizic’s performance suggests that he may be ready for rotation minutes, especially on the new-look Cavaliers. Zizic’s pre-draft role was seen as a high energy big man, able to impact the game positively as a rebounder, pick-and-roll finisher, and weakside shot blocker. So far, so good, if his Summer League performance is real. He showed indicators of improvement late in the year in 2017-18, and entering this season, looks like a much more polished player than he was in game one a year ago.

The finishing has always been his best skill, as he shot above 60 percent in multiple European seasons prior to coming to the NBA, and then shot 73.1 percent from the field as a rookie. He has great touch on dump-offs and post shots, and is able to explode up at the rim on lobs and rolls to the rim. His footwork in the post has improved, and while he’s never going to be a ferocious rim protector or Tristan Thompson-style switch defender, he has shown progression in his ability to make reads and contain despite his lack of agility.

Zizic’s ultimate ceiling is probably as a variant of the Timofey Mozgov model — a gigantic player with good footwork and touch that primarily serves as a screen and roll threat for your point guard, and makes a strong offensive team at least salvageable on defense. That’s not anything too exciting, but it is probably worth a starting spot somewhere. He may not be quite at that level yet, but we should be seeing another positive step towards that value this year. With him on a cheap contract for two more years, he has a chance to be a great value contract on this team.

There’s just one problem for Zizic’s development: Cleveland’s roster. The Cavs brought back everyone ahead of him in the big man rotation last season, and Thompson and a freshly extended Larry Nance definitely deserve minutes ahead of him this year. Kevin Love also will probably continue to get minutes at the five, and even Channing Frye is back, further making the center rotation murky. Zizic’s lack of positional versatility limits areas where you can find spots for him - he’s not playing the four, and while you can play him next to Thompson and Nance in short stretches, that is a tenuous spacing project for an offense run by a rookie point guard. Sam Dekker is around too.

So much of Zizic’s season is going to depend on the status of Cleveland’s roster. On one hand, he has shown great progression to date, and the Cavs need to see what they have in him and whether he’s going to be in the team’s long-term plans. That is going to need playing time to happen, and that should come in real game situations that matter, which he didn’t get last year.

However, the Cavs do have many veterans at the five who are going to be better than him this season, and if the team is serious about competing for a playoff spot, Zizic doesn’t give them more than what a healthy Nance or Thompson can give them. Unfortunately, this setting just doesn’t seem conducive to Zizic thriving as is.