By Bob Evans
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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