When ascribing traits to Cody Zeller, the former Indiana star who could be the second center off the board behind Nerlens Noel in the 2013 NBA draft, most college basketball fans can fire off a fusillade of nouns and verbs worthy of someone of his stature.
Even the most astute scouts would start with a synonym of smooth—something relating to his array of post moves around the basket. Others would use intelligent or basketball IQ—anything worthy of Zeller's veteran-level knowledge of spacing and where to go with the ball in his hands.
Someone wearing maize and blue might describe Zeller weak might use frail or weak—possibly along with a few other choice words.
Invariably, one description of Zeller that rarely comes up—or rather came up—prior to this week's draft combine in Chicago was "athletic" or any derivative synonym.
Zeller ran the open court just fine with the Indiana Hoosiers, but he played for a team that kept things relatively under control. In Zeller's two seasons under Tom Crean, Indiana finished with an adjusted pace of 67.3—slightly above average, but an eerie signal of the team's consistence. Superficially speaking, Big Ten basketball is where athleticism and freewheeling play goes to perish.
So it's understandable that the mainstream perception of Zeller was a little skewed in the athleticism department. At best, he was mostly described as an "above-average" athlete, but very few touted him as top-notch. Certainly, those who threw around words like "stiff" are victims of a larger cultural stereotype that we won't discuss here.
At this week's combine, Zeller, like the man who once ran the Marcy Street projects, got his jovial laugh. According to ESPN's Chad Ford, the Indiana center leapt 35.5 inches in the standing vertical jump on Friday. That astounding leap was the highest among anyone who participated in athletic drills this week:
Chad Ford @chadfordinsider
Top 5 Standing Vert. Zeller, Larkin, Adonis Thomas, Kadji, Tony Mitchell #NBACombine5/17/2013, 7:11:57 PM
And more jarringly impressive, Zeller's number was the best among players standing over 6'9" in a decade:
Chad Ford @chadfordinsider
Cody Zeller's standing vert of 35.5" was highest ever recorded for player 6-9 or taller in last decade. #NBADraftCombine5/17/2013, 4:04:18 PM
He also finished with a very solid 10.82 seconds in the lane agility drill and had the fastest sprint time among big men at 3.15 seconds, per Ford. It was a virtuoso performance that is almost reminiscent of Oklahoma offensive tackle Lane Johnson's brilliant combine, which helped vault him from borderline first-rounder all the way to the No. 4 pick in April's NFL draft.
Zeller's performance won't keep him from falling out of the first 30 picks, as that was never truly in danger. But what Zeller's combine has done and will do over the coming weeks is inject life into a semi-hapless draft process that seemed destined for a back half of the lottery ending.
It wasn't expected to be that way. Heading into the 2012-13 college basketball season, Zeller was considered something of a top-five lock. He, Noel and James Michael McAdoo (sorry about that) comprised a Big Three of big men who were expected to be high draft picks.
While Zeller had the most success from a team perspective among those three—the Hoosiers were a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament and made the Sweet 16—his sophomore campaign was considered a disappointment. The talent was still lingering in there somewhere, but plenty of folks wondered whether he was someone capable of making The Leap.
By and large, that criticism is based on one fact: Zeller's sophomore season and freshman season were nearly identical. There were some upticks, particularly in rebounding, but Zeller matched those with some surprising statistical dips as well.
During a season where Zeller was supposed to firmly place himself as college basketball's best big man, he became the second-best player on his own team behind Victor Oladipo.
For reference, here is how Zeller the freshman compared to Zeller the sophomore from both a metrics and standard statistics standpoint:
All advanced stats via Ken Pomeroy.
Outside of becoming a better rebounder, Zeller's numbers almost show a regression in every category. Those who watched Indiana know that he's become a more polished player in nearly every area, but it's fair to say Zeller failed to show any real signs of impending stardom at the NBA level.
Though he's just 20 years old, Indiana played enough on national television and on enough big stages that Zeller felt like someone with much more experience.
Even the most casual college hoops fan could give you a general synopsis of Zeller's skills without sounding like an imbecile. He's a very good offensive player in the post with a strong array of moves and ability to stretch outside the paint, but sometimes struggles to handle tough defenses.
The latter part of that reputation became particularly salient during the 2013 NCAA tournament. Zeller scored no more than 15 points in any of Indiana's three games, and his 10-point performance on 3-of-11 shooting in the Hoosiers' upset loss to Syracuse was particularly disconcerting.
March Madness acts as something of a PSAT for top NBA draft prospects, and Zeller's performance gave him a pre-score of 1,000. He'll be good enough to get into a few good schools, but NBA teams weren't getting the human embodiment of Ivy League here.
A scout told Adam Zagoria of SNY.tv that the Hoosiers' and Zeller's disappointing NCAA tournament didn't exactly kill his draft stock—but it didn't help either.
“Zeller is a good complementary player and not a franchise guy," the scout said. "His stock has probably slipped but not that far. Not a real deep draft as you know."
Another scout said that despite his poor play in March, Zeller's body of work was worthy of a top-10 pick.
Others weren't so sure heading into the combine. ESPN's Chad Ford had Zeller going No. 11 in his latest mock draft while CBS Sports' Jeff Goodman had him going No. 9. In other words, if Zeller is a top-10 pick, he's holding onto that distinction by a tattered thread.
Zeller's absence from the positional drills puts a bit of a damper on his athletic performance, and not everything went swimmingly in Chicago.
Rumors floated around that Zeller, who some were describing as alligator-armed around the basket at Indiana, had a measured wingspan of 6'8". Zeller, who interviewed with three teams on Thursday, told Sports Illustrated's Chris Mannix that those rumors were unfounded:
Chris Mannix @ChrisMannixYS
Cody Zeller says he interviewed with Toronto, Portland, Houston and Boston. Denies wingspan is 6-8. Says closer to 6-11.5/16/2013, 4:32:06 PM
When ESPN's Chad Ford came through with the official numbers from Chicago, Zeller's story checked out. His wingspan measured at 6'10.75", and he had a 8'10" standing reach. Those are still on the small side, mind you, but nothing near a catastrophe that some predicted.
That's especially the case if Zeller—as he's said publicly—will play power forward at the next level. Speaking with Mannix after getting through Thursday's festivities, Zeller said versatility could be key at the next level and compared himself to a certain Portland Trail Blazer.
"There are a lot of comparisons to LaMarcus Aldridge," Zeller said. "I can catch in the mid-post and use my quickness. I didn't shoot it from outside as much this year. I think I have that ability. It [won't be] a huge adjustment for me, proving I can do what I already know."
Regardless of how teams view him positionally, Zeller's combine experience is nothing short of a win. His athleticism numbers were off the charts and unexpected, the perfect swirling of circumstances that creates buzz. Scouts, general managers and pundits alike will walk away from the festivities with Zeller's name at the tip of their tongue.
And perhaps, that's the most important thing of all.
Follow Tyler Conway on Twitter: Follow @tylerconway22
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