How Tyler Zeller Can Get Back in the Rotation

Looking into what it will take for Tyler Zeller to get back on track and back in Boston’s rotation

After the disaster that was Tyler Zeller‘s season last year, its hard to imagine him settling his way back into the Boston Celtics‘ rotation. It’s easy to forget that he was the opening day starter last year, it is a lot harder to forget how Jahlil Okafor absolutely abused him on the inside. Zeller lost his touch in the mid range game and made none of the defensive progress that was expected for his fourth year in the league.

It felt as though Zeller became a long shot to return to the Celtics this year, but the fact of the matter is that the Celtics still see something in him. He has a lot of work to do to reestablish himself, but he is  legitimate candidate to take over some of the minutes that were lost with Jared Sullinger.

The first thing Zeller needs to do is get back to what he used to be doing in the mid range game. Someone that can shoot 60% between 10-16 feet is incredibly valuable to the Celtics. They need that kind of reliability and it is a bonus to get it out of their front court. Zeller was not a play maker, but he did not hesitate when an opportunity presented itself, and his reliability once had him in contention for the best player on the team.

Unfortunately for Zeller, returning to what he was two years ago will not be enough. Zeller was a complete disaster last year because he lost his offensive edge and made up no ground on the offensive end. Now that the talent level is much better on the Celtics, he needs to make up a lot of ground on the defensive end to return to his initial role with the team.

The best way for Zeller to have some sort of defensive impact is on the boards. They could suffer after the loses of Sullinger and Evan Turner and while Zeller did not put up prolific numbers, he was quietly an efficient rebounder two seasons ago.

Two seasons ago, Zeller was actually on par with Sullinger as a defensive rebounder. Zeller’s mark of 20.5 was slightly edged out by Sullinger’s 20.9, but it remains a solid indication that he can have an impact on the boards.

Zeller is no where near becoming a defensive force in the interior, but he needs to find other ways to contribute if he wants to get any kind of minutes this season. The mid range game and rebouding are what the Celtics have seen in Zeller before and are certainly two of the biggest reasons they decided to bring him back.

tyler zeller

Mar 9, 2016; Boston, MA, USA; Boston Celtics center Tyler Zeller (44) defends against Memphis Grizzlies forward P.J. Hairston (19) in the second half at TD Garden. The Celtics defeated Memphis 116-96. Mandatory Credit: David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

Perhaps more than what he did two seasons ago, Zeller’s appeal is the potential if he can add to his frame and strength, and become an advantage as a defender. He may not stretch the floor beyond the three point line, but the Celtics need to improve their shooting across the board. They continue to be one of the most active and aggressive teams in the mid range game, and their ball movement will certainly create opportunities for Zeller.

A fast start could be the difference maker for Zeller. While there are a lot of bodies in their front court, there is little uncertainty at the top. Al Horford is clearly  stable presence, Amir Johnson is expected to resume his role as a starter and Kelly Olynyk will continue to be a main option off the bench. Behind those three is where Zeller can look to carve out a role for himself, but if he stutters out of the gate someone else is likely to take that spot.

The Celtics are also past the days when Zeller could get a spot in the rotation almost out of default. Their talent level has increased and their expectations have increased. Zeller has been given opportunities and any kind of resemblance to last season will not be tolerated.

The Celtics’ ability to use their forwards interchangeably and put out three guard lineups makes their front court depth slightly less important. They can help make up for that lack of size depth with their guards, and that puts even more pressure on Zeller to perform, and he may never get another opportunities with the Celtics.

There are ways Zeller can help the Celtics, but that is based almost entirely on two seasons ago. If he can find a way to add some rim protection to what he was doing two years ago, then he could be the most balanced front court option off the bench. Jordan Mickey is going to be a defensive specialist, Ben Bentil will be used for his three point shooting and the same goes for Jonas Jerebko.

Zeller needs to establish himself as a two way threat if he wishes to be a factor in the rotation. He is not enough of a difference maker on either end to be able to get a roster spot as a one dimensional player. Zeller is also at a disadvantage considering it is his defense that needs to be much improved. The Celtics have prioritized defense and that is yet another obstacle in Zeller’s way.

Zeller will have to fight but considering the youth of the Celtics’ second unit, there is virtually no certainty when it comes to who will be featured on the second unit. Marcus Smart and Terry Rozier seem to be locks at the guard position and Jaylen Brown is their best small forward depth. Other than that it will be a battle and Zeller is clearly in consideration.

It was a surprise to see Zeller back with the Celtics this year, and it will be even more surprising if manages to get a role in the rotation. That being said, he is young enough to put last season behind him, and build on what once appeared to be a promising skill set at the five for the Celtics.