How Good Can Tyler Zeller and Tristan Thompson Be for Cleveland Cavaliers?
So much attention given to the Cleveland Cavaliers lately has been on stud point guard Kyrie Irving, but what about the other guys?
Irving leads the rebuilding charge for the young Cavs, but there are many other young players that Cleveland needs to create and sustain a championship-level roster.
Two of these players are big men Tristan Thompson and Tyler Zeller.
Thompson was the fourth overall pick in the 2011 NBA draft out of the University of Texas. A native of Canada, Thompson is now in his second pro season and is still just 21 years old.
Zeller was acquired in a draft-day trade with the Dallas Mavericks last summer out of the University of North Carolina. A senior coming out of college, Zeller is a 23-year-old rookie who went 17th overall in the draft.
While both players are currently starting at power forward and center, respectively, what can we expect from them moving forward in their Cavalier careers?
Can both truly be cornerstones to build around, or are they more valuable as trade pieces when Anderson Varejao returns next season?
First, let's take a look at Thompson and his play as a Cavalier thus far.
Thompson's rookie year was met with mixed results. The first half of the season saw Thompson backing up both post positions and struggling to establish any sort of a post game.
When Anderson Varejao went down (for the second of three straight seasons), Thompson was thrust into the starting center role. Standing at just 6'9", the rookie from Texas was often overmatched but held his own, averaging 10.4 points and 7.5 rebounds as a starter.
This experience coupled with a rigorous offseason helped lead to a transformation for Thompson this season.
A stronger Thompson has meant a much improved all-around game. For the season, Thompson is averaging 11.2 points and 9.2 rebounds in 31.3 minutes per game. Since Varejao went down this season, Thompson has really flourished, and he put together averages of 15.1 points and 10.9 rebounds in January alone.
Thompson has established himself as the Cavaliers' starting power forward for the foreseeable future. I love his work ethic, personality and non-stop motor.
He has a few go-to moves now that simply were not there a season ago. At just 21, it's exciting to think what a few more seasons of experience and offseason workouts will do for him.
What was most encouraging was Thompson's ascension in the wake of Varejao's absence. Since Varejao was leading the NBA in rebounding, its nice to see Thompson helped pick up some of those extra boards.
Next, we'll take a look at Tyler Zeller.
Zeller, like Thompson last year, was thrust into the starting center role after an injury to Varejao.
While he has the superior size at 7'0", Zeller has failed to match even Thompson's production in a starting center role.
For the year, Zeller is averaging 8.1 points and 6.1 rebounds per game. His numbers as a starter are 9.0 points and 6.8 rebounds in just over 30 minutes a contest. This is below-average production given the minutes Zeller is receiving. His field-goal percentage is an alarmingly low 42.9 percent for a big man.
Breaking this down, Zeller is a solid 61.3 percent on his shots at the rim, according to hoopdata.com. Moving just a few feet back, however, and Zeller has been downright awful.
From three to nine feet away, Zeller is connecting on just 28.9 percent of his shots. Normally a good jump shooter, Zeller has to improve this clip if he wants to continue to be a starter in the NBA.
His rebounding has also been below average, and far from the strong numbers he put up while at North Carolina. Strong games against the San Antonio Spurs and Orlando Magic recently provide hope, but it's clear Zeller has a lot of work to do.
Zeller has shown flashes, but to me has ultimately disappointed this season.
He runs the floor well, has the ability to hit the outside shot and is very intelligent, but he has yet to put it all together over a consistent stretch.
It's unfortunate he was thrown into a starting job so early, as his efficiency off the bench was much better than it is now as a starter. Zeller has the body to play either post position and would be better as the first big man off a team's bench.
At 23 years of age, Zeller doesn't have the ceiling of a player like Thompson. While he will get better with time and experience, I'm not sold on Zeller being an everyday starting center in the NBA just yet.
Keeping a player like Varejao around would be best for Zeller, and let him produce better quality minutes as a reserve.
Thompson and Zeller are both critical pieces for the Cavaliers moving forward.
For me, Thompson is a power forward that you can continue to build your team around. He's got the right attitude and passion for the game that you look for in a player with so much potential. Given a few more years of experience, and it's not unreasonable to think Thompson could be an 18-point, 11-rebound a night All-Star power forward.
The Cavs have found their starter at power forward for hopefully the next decade.
Zeller is out of his league right now as a starting NBA center. He has some games that prove someday he can be an above-average starter, but today is not that day. Given that he spent four years in college, we can expect Zeller to be a student of the game and continue to work on his skills and grow as a true professional.
Right now, Zeller should be the Cavs' first big man off the bench getting minutes at both power forward and center. Circumstances have forced him into a starting role before he was truly ready, and right now, his production is suffering.
Zeller will be a nice piece for the Cavs moving forward, but don't expect him to become a true cornerstone of the team.
Overall, the Cavs should be pleased with the future of their post positions, as both will have a lot to offer the franchise for years to come.
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