Last week, the Boston Celtics assisted in a cap-dumping trade between the Cleveland Cavaliers and the Brooklyn Nets. The Cavs cleared the space they needed to sign LeBron James. The Nets were able to shed Marcus Thornton from their gigantic payroll and got a decent combo guard through the process in Jarret Jack. The Celtics used their traded player exception from Brooklyn to take on Thornton’s expiring deal while also netting Tyler Zeller and a 2016 1st round pick from Cleveland. Here, I’ll tell you a bit about Zeller. Who he is, what he does and doesn’t do well, and how he potentially fits in with the Celtics moving forward.
Zeller, a high school superstar, was named “Mr. Basketball” in Indiana for 2008. The younger brother of Luke, and older brother of Cody, Tyler Zeller has basketball in his bloodlines. He took his talents to the University of North Carolina where his job was pretty simple: emerge as the missing piece UNC needed behind Tyler Hansbrough in their quest for a national title. That did and didn’t work out. Behind a loaded squad that included future NBA players like Hansbrough, Ty Lawson, Danny Green, Wayne Ellington, and Ed Davis the Tar Heels did go on to win the national title in impressive fashion.
But in only the second game of the season Zeller took an awkward fall on his left arm/wrist. He broke both his radius and ulna. Zeller did return in February but was still recovering and barely played for the rest of the season. He finished his college career in style, emerging as one of the best big men in the country, even making 2nd team All-America and winning ACC Player of the Year his senior year.
He was chosen by Dallas 17th overall in the 2012 NBA Draft but was immediately traded to Cleveland. He started 55 games as rookie but saw his role greatly reduced last season, playing just 15 minutes a game.
- great hands/skill with the ball
- runs floor well
- passes well for a center
- great mid-range jumper
- effective scoring out of and defending pick-n-rolls
- great touch inside with either hand
- good length
- high effort/IQ player
- not an elite athlete
- not physical or strong, gets pushed around easily
- doesn’t move well defensively
- not much as a rim protector
- fouls way too much
- disappears completely at times
Zeller may not be the elite rim protector the Celtics are coveting but he certainly causes more problems there for opponents than Kelly Olynyk, Jared Sullinger, or Brandon Bass. Dating back to his time at Butler, Brad Stevens has loved skilled big men who can hit from the mid-range, step out to the top and make the right pass, and get down the floor. Zeller can do all that. He should see a bigger role in Boston than he did last season in Cleveland. In fact, depending on Stevens’ willingness to play Olynyk at center and Vitor Faverani’s health, Zeller might start.
As a shooter, Zeller is very impressive for a big man. He shoots a cool 48.1% on jumpers outside the paint but inside the arc. His favorite spots are the baselines. He shoots 56.04% at the rim, which is both about league average and acceptable for a big man known more for his mid-range touch than his toughness inside. He also has a nice hook shot that he converts 48.2% of the time. Here’s Zeller’s shot chart from last season.
Zeller’s PER was 15.4 last season, which is remarkable for someone who only played 15 minutes a game. He should’ve been playing more, it’s that simple. Cleveland was a net -3.9 in points per 100 possession last season overall, and a net -1.7 with Zeller on the floor (the 4th best rate on the team). So they were still bad, but were significantly better with him in the game. Zeller did commit 4.7 fouls per 36 minutes last season, which is a major concern. That is proof that he probably isn’t quick or athletic enough to ever become a true rim protector.
He has improved a bit on defense, as his blocked shot/foul rate last season was 0.55. But that’s still an ugly number. That number should be much closer to 1.0, ideally. Great rim protectors like Larry Sanders (1.43), Serge Ibaka (1.78), and Anthony Davis (1.67) even see their number closer to 2.0. Zeller doesn’t have the athleticism to ever become that good but improvement is still required. Though, bench players do tend to eat up more fouls so there’s a chance that number would elevate by default if Zeller is called on for bigger minutes.
Zeller has improved tremendously as a shooter in terms of efficiency, boosting his true shooting percentage from 48.6% as a rookie to 58.1% as a sophomore. He picks his spots better now. As a rookie, 35.2% of his shots came from beyond 16 feet from the hoop. Last season, just 15.9% of his shots came from beyond 16 feet. He took more hook shots inside the paint and short jumpers from the baseline, which are his best shots.
Zeller added 0.120 win shares per 48 minutes last season, which like his PER, is just above league average (Note: average PER is always 15.0 and average WS/48 is always 0.100). Obviously Zeller’s lack of minutes last season impact those figures a bit, but when on the court, Zeller was comparable to big men like Taj Gibson, Patrick Patterson, Timofey Mozgov, and Amare Stoudemire in terms of the net impact he and on his teams chances.
When playing center, Zeller (12.8 rebounds per 48) was slightly out-rebounded by his opponents (13.1 rebounds per 48). But he outscores his opponents (18.2 pts/48 vs 16.8 pts/48) and does so more efficiently (53.5% effective FG vs 52.8%). Zeller, against 2nd unit big men, is a plus-player by all accounts.
How He Fits:
Zeller is a bargain with a salary of $1.7 million next season and a $2.6 million team-option for ’15-’16. A player of his caliber should be making between $4-5 million a year. In a perfect world, Zeller would split time at center with Faverani (a much better rebounder/defender but a much worse offensive player), though the Celtics determination to develop Sullinger and Olynyk will likely see them stealing minutes at center despite it not being their natural position. The acquisition of Zeller likely ends the roster hopes of Colton Iverson.
Being a cheap young player, Zeller could be thrown in to any trade package the Celtics are trying to put together for Kevin Love. Unlike Thornton, Zeller figures to fit into the Celtics rotation right away and also is a legitimate asset.
It’s really anyones guess which of the Celtics big men are viewed as building blocks. It could be as many as four of them. It could be none of them. However, getting a 24 year old seven-footer with skill is never a bad thing. If Zeller stays in green he will contribute.