Young Player Profile: Tyler Zeller

March 22nd, 2013 by Kevin Hetrick
So far, rookie Tyler Zeller underwhelms.  This somewhat surprises me, as leading up to the 2012 draft, I ranked him eighth in a strong class.  He scored everywhere, with deft touch near the basket, running in transition, and showing a solid stroke from catch & shoot situations and the free throw line.  Draftexpress looked at 26 big men, and even while high-usage, he scored fourth-most efficiently per possession. He rebounded adequately in the ACC, ranking fourth on offense and seventh for defensive rebounding rate. He finished as a two-time Academic All American and the Conference Player of the Year.  Defensively, he possessed a cerebral understanding of rotational responsibilities.  Even performing well at pre-draft athleticism tests, of the drafted seven-footers in draftexpress.com’s extensive database, only four players jumped higher, only five ran faster, and a single-person needled through the agility drill quicker.  Weighing in at a healthy 247 pounds, he benched sixteen reps at 185.

Get nasty, Tyler! Play with some fire!!

Now, three-quarters through his age-23 season, many of those skills have not yet translated.  According to draftexpress, Zeller scored an elite 1.67 points per possession in transition last year; this year that is a less stellar 1.02 points per play, as per Synergy Sports.  From the same source, Tyler received only thirty-four post-up opportunities this year…but he hasn’t earned more that, making five of twenty-four field goals, and losing eight turnovers.  Ouch. While still a 77% free throw shooter, opponents need not respect his jumper, which lands only 33% of the time from outside of ten-feet.  Of 55 qualified centers, he ranks 49th for rebound rate.  Consistently drawing charges stands as his most redeeming quality, where he ranks among the league leaders.  In 63 games and 27 minutes per game, he averages 8 points and 6 rebounds on 48.5% true shooting, good for PER of 11.4 and RAPM calling him the league’s 347th best player.

So how can he improve, and what does the future hold for young Mr. Zeller?  What can he do to turn his fortunes around, and salvage my opinion of him as a top-ten pick?  Let’s peruse some game recaps:

March 1st vs LA Clippers – Facing the tandem of Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan for the first time since they broke his face, Tyler struggled in this one.  Starting 0 for 5, missing hook-shots, jumpers, tip-ins, and put-backs, Zeller was also abused early on defense.  Jordan scored twice early, once hammering a dunk over Tyler’s head.  Later, when assessing the harrowing choice between an uncontested Chris Paul lay-up or a Blake Griffin alley-oop, Zeller selected the former, letting CP3 stroll to the basket uncontested.

The second quarter featured more timid play; twice, after receiving a pass, he looked hesitant, one time losing the ball, while fortunately receiving a goal-tending call the other.  On air, Austin Carr reprimanded him, imploring that Tyler “needs to throw everyone in the basket”.  And of course, AC is right; Zeller must start trying to create some posters where he’s the focal point.  On defense, the rookie also played tentatively, careening from unsure-responsibility to unsure-responsibility.  Surely against the Clippers, they thrive at making opposing bigs look stupid, but Tyler can be more definitely aggressive at attacking whatever his assignment is.

I don’t know if TZ was intimidated by the Clipper bigs, or certainly a fifth game in seven nights proved tiring, but his non-physicality looked appalling.  Whether ping-ponged around by picks and screens, routinely being out-muscled on the defensive boards, or rarely impacting Clipper shots at the basket, the second half looked like the first.  When a shot goes up on defense, he needs to actively engage the opponent and move them away from the basket; oftentimes, he waits for the ball.  When setting picks, he slips away too soon, without firmly impacting the movement of the player he is screening.

In a 16-point loss, Tyler did his share to help that; 9 points and 1 defensive rebound in 30 minutes with 41% True shooting.  Generally, he looked tired and possibly overawed by the Clipper front-court duo.  Two of his buckets came in garbage time, down twenty in the closing minutes.  This sort of game needs to become much less frequent next year.  As a side note, ideally the young-big-man also focuses on pick & roll play; he often pops, but developing solid timing and strength as a force when rolling, would greatly disturb opposing defenses.

March 16th at San Antonio – I didn’t give any easy nights; the Spurs suit-up twin seven-footers in Tiago Splitter and Tim Duncan, the likely NBA Defensive POY.  Zeller’s night started bumpy, initially guarding their big Brazilian.  Splitter posted, then faced-up, then left TZ in the dust, leaving the rookie grasping at a Spurs and-one.  Around the same time, point guard Cory Joseph isolated on the Cavs big, easily beating him and leading the Spurs announcers to call Tyler “a big, tall stiff”, a comment that they humorously back-tracked-on for the remainder of the quarter.  Off a pump-fake, Zeller drove the left wing, finishing with a ferocious slam, then later impacting two Spur-drives with nimble-baseline agility, before running the court and netting a transition dunk.  While also draining a twenty-footer off a pick & pop, additional lowlights existed: lacking defensive awareness allowed a Duncan layup, and Timmy sealed-off the rookie in the post, finishing another easy opportunity.  Overall, I’ll take this quarter from the rookie, as he scored some points and even showed some toughness, once holding his ground and forcing a Duncan air-ball and on another occasion, picking up his second foul by rocking a San Antonio guard with a screen; the guy crumbled to the ground, but really, it didn’t look like a foul to me, just a small player unexpectedly running head-long into an entrenched seven-footer.  When Tyler sat after eleven minutes, Cleveland trailed 26 to 32.

Two fouls in less than a minute during the second quarter guided Tyler to the bench with four for the half.  A strong box-out of Duncan allowed Boobie to clean up the glass.  Potentially due to the foul trouble, Zeller looked particularly inept defending the basket in the third quarter; on several occasions, he allowed an easy Spur-waltz to the hoop.   Tiago Splitter backed-him down for an easy hook, and with twenty minutes remaining in the game, TZ headed to the pine with five fouls.  He did not return.

With a tough matchup, he finished with 6 points and 1 rebound in 16 minutes.  There were highlights, but certainly difficulties manning-up with one of the NBA’s bigger frontcourts.

Summary: Tyler needs to bulk-up, and get meaner.  When he plays, Cleveland’s defensive rebound rate is 70%, which cellar-dwells amongst all NBA teams.  The Cavs grab more offensive boards when he plays though, and over the last twenty-two games, his true shooting rises to a very acceptable 55.7%, thanks to consistently improved finishing.  Finally, some of that collegiate offensive skill is shining through.  Along those lines moving forward, an absolute must includes knocking down 40+% of his jumpers.  I definitely want to see the 2013 – 2014 season start with TZ getting solid rotation minutes and a chance to prove himself.  He hit a wall this season, and hopefully returns next season stronger and refreshed. If January 17th approaches though, with Tyler still getting tossed-around on his 24th birthday, that sentiment will end quickly.  So, hit the weight-room this summer, drink some protein shakes, climb Mount Everest with a Sherpa on your back…just come back a ripped, potentially scowling, mean s.o.b. next year.  That would be cool.