Is Tyler Zeller a Legitimate Building Block for Boston Celtics' Future?

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Is Tyler Zeller a Legitimate Building Block for Boston Celtics' Future?
Michael Dwyer/Associated Press
Will Tyler Zeller and Kelly Olynyk be fighting over a role?

With the Boston Celtics' NBA future so up in the air right now, it is tough not to grasp at straws. The state of flux appears to be ongoing this summer and building blocks can't clearly be defined.

New arrival Tyler Zeller is a young, skilled, 7'0" big man, something this current Celtics team desperately needs. However, is a guy who played just 15 minutes a game last season for a bad Cleveland Cavaliers team, one you want to hang your hat on as a building block to future success?

Zeller came to Boston as part of a three-team deal that also saw the Celtics pick up Marcus Thornton from the Brooklyn Nets and a future protected first-round pick from Cleveland. Brooklyn took back Jarrett Jack and Sergey Karasev, while the Celtics utilized their $10.3 million trade exception, earned during last summer's big trade with Brooklyn.

The pick is a 2016 top-10 protected first-rounder, with that same protection holding until 2019. However, with LeBron James now on the Cavaliers, it is likely Boston will acquire that pick sooner rather than later, but also that it will be in the 20s. Thornton is an $8.58 million expiring contract this coming season who failed to crack 40 percent shooting last year.

Zeller is the real prize and objective of Danny Ainge making this move. While mediocre future assets and expiring contracts are valuable in the NBA, 24-year-old 7-footers who can play blow those things out of the water.

 

Was Zeller Mismanaged?

Jesse D. Garrabrant/Getty Images
By choosing Spencer Hawes over Tyler Zeller, Cleveland hurt their young player's growth.

Taken 17th overall in the 2012 NBA draft, Zeller was traded to Cleveland instantly. Almost as fast, he started making an impact for the Cavaliers. He posted 15 points and seven boards in his fourth NBA game. His rookie season saw him register seven double-doubles and averages of 7.9 points, 5.7 rebounds and 0.9 blocks in 26.4 minutes per game.

Those numbers caved a bit last season while the Cavaliers went through a fair amount of dysfunction. Zeller's head coach Byron Scott, who put a lot of trust in the rookie, was replaced by Mike Brown, who didn't give the sophomore big man as much opportunity and was subsequently fired this summer.

Cleveland brought in center Andrew Bynum, who did little but disrupt the team's chemistry while soaking up minutes Zeller could have used to grow. Bynum was eventually suspended by the team and then traded away.

The team also used their No. 1 overall pick on Anthony Bennett. While not a center, Bennett took minutes in the frontcourt in an attempt for the Cavaliers to develop him into something, which cast yet another shadow over Zeller. 

Instead of giving Zeller more opportunities to play, Cleveland went ahead and traded for floor-spreading big man Spencer Hawes. Despite playing 29.8 minutes over 27 games and 25 starts, Hawes did little to change Cleveland's outlook in 2013-14 and beyond, as he has now signed with the Los Angeles Clippers.

Zeller played in only 15 minutes per game during his sophomore campaign, starting nine games after starting 55 the year before. He was still active and available, playing in 70 games overall and shooting 53.8 percent from the field. It is tough to say whether being mismanaged was a just case, but given the Cavaliers' history, they don't deserve much benefit of the doubt.

Zeller's growth was likely stunted by Cleveland's failed chase to get a playoff spot, but in Boston he should have a lot more opportunity to get on the floor.

 

What Can He Bring to Boston?

As we've stated multiple times already, Zeller is 7 feet tall, which puts him in rare air both literally and figuratively on the Celtics.

Boston's other 7-footers, Kelly Olynyk and Vitor Faverani, have different games or simply aren't as good of basketball players. Their other frontcourt players, Brandon Bass, Jared Sullinger and Joel Anthony, are slightly undersized, so there are minutes there for the taking.

Zeller also fits what head coach Brad Stevens will be looking to push forward with in his second year. Stevens wants a team that runs the floor, and that happens to be the North Carolina grad's specialty. Stevens told MassLive's Jay King:

First and foremost, I think he’s a great transition rim-runner. I think he can really get out and fly up and down the court, and I think that showed itself true a lot at North Carolina. And then I think he is a guy that can, with his skill, score on the block but also stretch the defense.

Zeller is the type of center who can run with the likes of Rajon Rondo, Avery Bradley and Marcus Smart in transition. At North Carolina, he was infamous for his transition reads and ability to fill lanes while sure-handedly accepting passes in motion. Those hands are key with a creative distributor like Rondo wheeling and dealing on the move.

He gets a bit leak-happy on defense, especially when he isn't involved in a play. As soon as a shot goes up from a different part of the court, he has already slipped behind his man and gotten a jump-start on the fast break. This isn't always ideal and can definitely lead to negative offensive rebounds.

However, if he is being paired with Sullinger in the starting lineup, those negatives can potentially be evened out because of how board-hungry and sure-handed Sullinger is. Rondo is also a big plus-rebounder, and having his big out in transition already would be interesting to see.

That leaking isn't to say he is a horrible defender, even when it comes to off-ball help. Zeller is big and wide, not one of those scrawny, lanky 7-footers. He spent four years at college under Roy Williams, building up strength and defensive guile. He sets wide charges, with the body mass to absorb all that contact.

While his length isn't eye-popping, he isn't an incredibly short-armed big either. He uses his feet well laterally, which allows him to make up inches on his reach when manning up individually and obstructing passing lanes.

On offense, that size allows him to create a lot of space, both on pick-and-rolls and when he posts up for hook shots. He may slowly be learning how to get his shot off in traffic at the rim. Because he isn't explosive or particularly long, Zeller can be swallowed up by big, athletic posts. With time, that knowledge will come to a smart player.

NBA.com/stats
Tyler Zeller's 2012-13 shot chart.

Zeller has some range on his jumper, which will help him keep a spot on the floor in Boston if he is hitting those shots at a decent clip. That will play into the sort of positionless style that Stevens want to implement.

As a rookie, Zeller hit on 60-of-157 attempts from 15-19 feet. During his second year, he was 24-of-47, good for 38.2 percent and 51.1 percent, respectively, per NBA.com.

One more thing to keep in mind as he moves forward with his stay in Boston is the fact that Zeller was a four-year college player and 2012 Academic All-American of the Year, an award Stevens' own player Matt Howard won the year before. Those are both things that will sit well with a basketball intellectual like Stevens. 

 

Not Getting Carried Away

Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images

What we just discussed illustrates that Zeller is a quality player capable of making an impact when given the opportunity. However, the Celtics are on the hunt for building blocks right now, and we should probably press the pause button for couple minutes.

There were reasons back in 2012 that Zeller fell out of the lottery despite being named ACC Player of the Year and leading his team to the Elite Eight in the NCAA tournament.

For one, Zeller's ceiling isn't all that high. DraftExpress listed his best-case comparison as Greg Monroe, but that feels like a lengthy stretch right now. Zeller's lack of superior length and athleticism will hinder him from ever making a huge impact in the NBA. Likewise, this may have been a reason he lasted four years in college instead of declaring earlier.

The league's top big men are either long, athletic leapers like DeAndre Jordan and Serge Ibaka, or mammoth brick walls like Roy Hibbert and Dwight Howard. If neither of those are your game, you had better be able to stretch the floor with your shooting. Zeller can do that a bit, but not enough that he will get more looks than Olynyk in that role.

Celtics fans also have to be careful with their opinions on Zeller based on a limited sample size. Against the Celtics during his rookie campaign, he averaged 11.5 points and seven rebounds over four games.

Zeller isn't the rim-protecting big man Boston fans have been doodling up in their notebooks. However that player may not exist, at least in the world available to the Celtics. Zeller should be given a chance, though.

Elite big men are nice, but hardly a necessity for at least reasonable success. Tiago Splitter, Kendrick Perkins, Robin Lopez, Sam Dalembert and Pero Antic started playoff games this past season. Zeller has the potential to be as good as those guys and maybe even get to the level of Jonas Valanciunas or Andrew Bogut, though defensively that is doubtful.

Those guys aren't necessarily building blocks, and neither is Zeller.

 

We should, you know, hang out some time...  

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