You wouldn't normally see a team coming off a 61-win season with a draft pick in the lottery, but a nice stroke of luck has benefited the Oklahoma City Thunder as they currently hold their highest draft position since 2009.
Even for a contending team like Oklahoma City, there's always room for more young talent to be brought in. This is especially true with the recent and steep decline in production from starting center Kendrick Perkins.
Though losing Russell Westbrook to injury during the playoffs this season was definitely the chief cause of the Thunder's downfall in the second round, it's also fair to say that the poor play of Perkins could be a close second.
When the Thunder dealt Jeff Green away to Boston for Perkins, he was supposed to bring a strong defensive presence in the post and serve as a big upgrade over Nenad Kristic.
He was able to do fairly well at filling his role the past few seasons, but this past playoff run was a wake-up call for Oklahoma City. Having a center who plays 25-plus minutes per game with averages of just 4.2 points and six rebounds isn't going to cut it for a championship caliber team.
What the Thunder need is a dominant center who can do what Perkins does and then some. This is where the 12th overall selection comes into play.
Fortunately, that's exactly what the Thunder will be looking for since they have plenty of star power already.
A player who would fit well into OKC's scheme would be a guy with athleticism, size, a versatile offensive skill set and a strong defensive ability.
If you wrap all of these things together, the result would be a man who could be the eventual answer to the Perkins dilemma: Cody Zeller.
Zeller stands out in this class of big men as possibly the most NBA-ready center/power forward. His post moves are quick yet powerful and his balance allows him to adjust to contact and finish at the rim. On top of that, Zeller has demonstrated the ability to get to the free-throw line at high rates (7.2 times per game this past year), where he's shooting 75 percent as well.
Another tantalizing aspect to Zeller's game is that he's got very above-average quickness and speed for a player of his size, meaning he would see more opportunities on fast breaks with a Thunder team that likes to push the ball in the open court.
If you're curious as to just how fast Zeller is, his pre-draft measurement for the three-quarters court sprint clocked in at just 3.15 seconds, with smaller guards like Ben McLemore and Trey Burke recording times of 3.27 and 3.16 seconds, respectively.
Having an athlete of this caliber would be a breath of fresh air compared to Perkins, who's often at the tail end of fast breaks.
On defense, Zeller certainly has the height to match up against premier big men in the pros, but he'll have to fill in his frame to withstand the raw power that he'd be facing on a nightly basis. Outside of just situations in the post, Zeller has shown that he can defend the pick-and-roll well thanks to his superb footwork and general defensive awareness.
Though the Thunder would love to have Zeller fill in the center role to replace Kendrick Perkins, this change would take time. Some of this has to do with the fact that Zeller, while seemingly NBA-ready, would still be raw enough to hurt the team more than help it if he was thrown into the fire as an immediate starter.
Also, Zeller needs time to bulk up a bit, because his physique right now is more suited for a power forward rather than the center position that OKC needs him to fill.
The good thing is that Oklahoma City has shown great patience with developing its young talent, and it's paid off with players like Reggie Jackson.
Therefore, if the Thunder are to get the most out of their 12th overall pick, they not only have to draft Zeller, but they'd also have to let him develop correctly.
A realistic scenario would be for Kendrick Perkins to remain the starter for at least the upcoming 2013-14 season, allowing Zeller to get his feet wet in the NBA while also getting some pointers from the veteran Perkins for defensive mechanics.
While Perkins' production may have fallen, I still do believe that he's at least still a good defender who could help a young player like Zeller improve his game.
It remains to be seen how available Cody Zeller will be when the Thunder's pick rolls around. In the weeks leading up to the draft, how teams ahead of OKC are feeling about other big-man prospects like Alex Len, Steven Adams and Kelly Olynyk will affect Zeller's draft spot.
However, I think that Zeller's a great-enough fit for Oklahoma City that GM Sam Presti will make the necessary moves to trade up for him, even if it means sacrificing some future draft picks.
Out of all the centers in the draft, there is no one who would fit in as well or as quickly for the Thunder than Zeller. He has the right work ethic and high motor to blend in with the OKC basketball culture—and being in a winning environment only adds to that.
In other words, Zeller is the answer to one of the Thunder's biggest problems right now.
All statistics courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com, ESPN.com, and DraftExpress.com.
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