Cleveland Cavaliers: Is Tyler Zeller’s Regression Since Anderson Varejao’s Injury Cause for Concern?

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Updated: February 14, 2013

By Bob Evans
Senior Writer

When the Cleveland Cavaliers packaged three 2012 NBA Draft selections to move up and select North Carolina center Tyler Zeller, the assumption was that he would be the team’s center of the future. However, his play 48 games into his young NBA career has told a different story—especially since starting Cavaliers’ center Anderson Varejao was lost for the season with an injury.

Standing 7’0” and 250-pounds, Zeller seemingly has a height advantage over the majority of post players in the NBA. He should be utilizing his length to dunk over the majority of opponents, while utilizing that same attribute to disrupt shots on the defensive end. But what he “should” be doing and what he is actually doing are two completely different things in the 2012-2013 NBA season.

Prior to losing Varejao, Zeller was being brought along slowly by Cavaliers head coach Byron Scott. In the month of November (11 games), Zeller played just 22.2 minutes per night. He shot 41.9 percent from the field, averaged six points and grabbed 4.6 rebounds per game coming off the bench.

It seemed as if the Cavaliers had made the right decision bringing Zeller along slowly, as his numbers in December (16 games) were much better than the previous month. He played 27.1 minutes, shot 44.6 percent from the field and averaged 9.6 points and 6.1 rebounds per game primarily as a reserve for the Cavaliers. However, since Varejao’s injury on Dec. 18 Zeller’s numbers have been much different.

Utilizing him in a starter’s role, Zeller’s numbers have dipped dramatically in January and February thus far. In January, Zeller averaged 34.3 minutes, shot 36.6 percent, scored 8.8 points and grabbed 7.8 rebounds per game (the only statistic to increase). Prior to Wednesday night’s game against the San Antonio Spurs, Zeller was averaging 24 minutes, shooting 37.5 percent from the field, scoring 5.2 points and grabbing 5.7 rebound per game in the month of February.

Unlike fellow front-court mate Tristan Thompson (who has flourished since Varejao’s injury), Zeller has looked like a lost puppy on both ends of the floor as his minutes have increased in January and February. On the defensive end, he is constantly out of position and overmatched by whoever he is defending. And on the offensive side of the ball, his mid-range jump shot is flat and he is often caught shuffling his shoes more than a salsa dancer.

At 23-years old, one would expect a player who blossomed into a 16-point, 9.6 rebound a night player as a senior at North Carolina to be much more polished at this point in his rookie season. Unlike the rest of the Cavaliers’ young core (Thompson, Kyrie Irving and Dion Waiters), Zeller was part of one of the premier programs in all of college basketball for four seasons—soaking up quality information from a coaching staff that has sent countless players to the NBA level.

Instead, Zeller seems to be regressing as he gets more playing time—which should be a major cause for concern for general manager Chris Grant, Scott and Cavaliers fans. It is understandable that a rookie will struggle during his first season, but the fact Zeller is now afraid to even take his jump shot the Cavaliers drafted him for is making plenty of people lose hope that he will develop into a serviceable NBA starter.

Although this writer is not a fan of the “what if” scenario, one has to wonder what this Cavaliers’ team would look like had Grant decided to stand pat and not move up to grab Zeller. Instead of sending the Nos. 24 (first round), 33 (second round) and 34 (second round picks) to move up to No. 17 for Zeller, the Cavaliers could have snagged a number of quality pieces that would make their young core look even more intriguing.

At No. 24, the Cavaliers could have selected Baylor small forward Perry Jones III. The 6’11” and 235-pound swingman displayed a sweet stroke and relentlessness getting to the rim in his short time spent in college. In Oklahoma City, he is entrenched on the bench behind some guy named Kevin Durant, so he is averaging just 6.9 minutes, 1.8 points and 1.4 rebounds per game thus far this season.

After selecting Jones, the Cavaliers could have focused on adding quality bench depth by selecting another small forward in Jae Crowder from Marquette at No. 33 (he went No. 34 to Dallas) and then taken center Bernard James (ended up going No. 32 to Dallas) from Florida State.

Ironically enough, the two players taken in the second round were taken with the Cavaliers two picks, and would have been a major boost to the team’s bench early in the season when it seemed the NBA D-League All-Star team was playing major minutes.

At the end of the day, it is still too early to close the book on Zeller. He has shown flashes of aggressiveness during his rookie year, but not enough to keep the Cavaliers from drafting a real big man in the 2013 NBA Draft.

With as many as three first-round selections in the 2013 NBA Draft (their own, Miami’s and Sacramento’s with protection), the Cavaliers have already been mocked to upgrade the center position. Players being mentioned are Kentucky freshman Nerlens Noel, Zeller’s brother Cody from Indiana and later first-round possibilities like Gorgui Dieng from Louisville and Jeff Withey from Kansas.

With the All-Star break looming, Zeller better kick it into high gear in the second portion of the NBA’s season. Because if he does not find a way to show the front office he can start at the NBA level, the Cavaliers will be looking for someone who can—and Zeller will find himself coming off the bench for the rest of his NBA career.

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4 Comments

  1. Bob Evans

    February 14, 2013 at 4:51 pm

    I think there are a couple of things that will help determine if the Cavs can make the playoffs next season:

    1) Which direction the team goes in free agency. They will have a ton of money to use, whether they choose to use it next year or wait til the potential Summer of LeBron (I refuse to discuss til it happens) will play a big role. As we have all seen, just signing Shaun Livingston to come off the bench and trading for Marreese Speights and Wayne Ellington has infused a valuable veteran presence into this team. Adding a few more veteran pieces may get them over the hump.

    2) Can Kyrie learn to play off the ball/trust Dion Waiters? For whatever reason, the more you watch these two, it is like Kyrie just does not want to co-exist on the court with Dion. I have watched every game and it is the same story, Kyrie brings it up, Dion goes to the corner. Dion brings it up, Kyrie goes to the corner. They must learn to play off the ball to succeed together.

    I’m not sure what Grant’s plans are for the future, but I do know he is stockpiling assets to make a big move. You don’t have potentially 7/8 first-round picks in the next four drafts (I forget the exact number) and ACTUALLY anticipate using them all. But based on the current composure with the addition of a small forward and getting Varejao back, I do not see why they cannot contend for the playoffs–but still think they are a major scorer away from going deep.

  2. MJM1MJM1

    February 14, 2013 at 11:20 am

    Bob,

    I remember that my son and I had that same discussion when they drafted Zeller. Was he worth 3 picks? I guess we will find out in the next year or so. But given Anderson’s latest injury, who would be playing center on this team had we not drafted Zeller?

    Relating to one of your other thoughts, it would be my strong preference to trade for a young small forward already, but not being used because of a star ahead of him, like the guy watching Durant. I think this team would be far better off with this type of player, one who has been exposed to the type of coaching you typically can only get in the NBA and who would have logged at least some time against other NBA players.

    Now, here is my big question for you:
    A) If Anderson comes back next year, allowing Zeller to move to the second team;

    B) If we get a quality small forward, either one of the players you mentioned in the draft, or trading for one;

    C) And if Waiters makes the same type of improvement next year that Tristan has this year;

    will the Cavs be in the hunt, not just for the last playoff spot in the East, but to actually go deeper into the playoffs?

  3. Bob Evans

    February 14, 2013 at 10:41 am

    I forget who said it when Zeller was drafted, but they said he would be an average NBA starting center at best and a very good player coming off the bench. So your comments about his value as a back-up ring very true. My only problem with that assessment is this–why trade three picks to secure a player who’s ceiling is an average NBA starter? I understand the team had a need for a true 7-footer at the center position, and that NBA second-round picks are not as valuable and very few make NBA rosters and have a major impact in the long run, but there were still very key contributors to be had with the picks they sent to land Zeller.

    As for Gee, I have always viewed him as an elite first, second or third player off the bench for a team. His lockdown defensive skills, athleticism and ability to provide a spark off the bench would be perfect–if the Cavaliers had a player capable of starting at SF on the roster..

    Which leads to the upcoming draft. Unless they can trade for a young starting small forward (easily the team’s biggest need in my opinion), I think targeting one in the draft is important. If they cannot trade for one, Shabazz Muhamed from UCLA, Otto Porter from Georgetown, or Anthony Bennett from UNLV would all be nice prospects depending on where the Cavs fall in the lottery.

    I think Tristan Thompson has proven himself enough to rule out a power forward early, but the team could look to draft a “scrapper” type with Miami’s pick later in the first round or with one of their second round picks. As for the center position, I only want them to draft one if it is a banging, not afraid to get his hands dirty, defensive-minded guy. With the current composure of the roster and the hopeful addition of a scoring-minded small forward, that would be the next major need. However, Chris Grant is an “asset-minded” GM, so he will take best player available and go from there.

  4. MJM1MJM1

    February 14, 2013 at 9:50 am

    Interesting article. I agree that his progress has gone backwards a bit. Am I overly discouraged? Probably not. He was making progress prior to Varejao being injured. This was no doubt a combination of practice with and against Anderson, and the fact that he was primarily going against the bench centers on the other teams.

    Had Varejao not gotten injured, it would seem reasonable to believe that Zeller’s improvement would have continued. My perspective was that next year Coach Scott would have begun playing him in spot positions against other top level centers.

    The one and only blessing I see from Anderson’s injury is that now he will probably be on our team next year, assuming that the significant blood clot issue can be resolved. This will allow Zeller to be used more effectively which is, I feel, coming off the bench with the second team.

    I think another problem with Zeller has been the recent play ofAlonzo Gee. Gee’s play dropped off late in the 1st half of last season, as I recall. Gee has demonstrated value coming off the bench. I love him on this team. However, he seems to tire out both mentally and physically when he is forced to play big minutes. This also, I believe, has hurt Zeller’s performance as the opposing team’s defense can sag back onto him more than what they could if Alonzo was playing more effectively.

    And are we truly pinning any hopes on Oden’s actually coming in and contributing?

    So, given the above, how do you think the Cavaliers should prioritize in the upcoming draft. Best player available or best player at a position of need, i.e., Center, Small Forward, Power Forward? And in what order.

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