Tyler Zeller didn’t exactly have a stellar rookie season. More often than not, he was among the most frustrating players to watch on an overall frustrating team. Coming out of college, the former North Carolina Tar Hell was the ACC Player of the Year his senior season, as well as a second team All-American. And although he wasn’t a lottery pick in the 2012 Draft, he was thought of well enough for the Cavaliers to make a deal with the Dallas Mavericks to select Zeller for them with the 17th overall pick.
Granted, Zeller was never thought to be a starting center – at least not right way. His game, largely based on finesse play, would need some fine-tuning in order for him to maximize his abilities.
But throughout his rookie campaign, Zeller gave Cavalier fans more reasons to boo than to cheer. A prime example of this is the Brooklyn Nets game from December, when Zeller started in place of the injured Anderson Varejao. Going up against Nets center Brook Lopez, the rookie was manhandled every minute he played defense against Lopez. He got in foul trouble early, which resulted in Zeller fouling out mid-way through the fourth quarter. Zeller’s foul trouble resulted in Luke Walton having to play center for the majority of the fourth quarter.
With the signing of Andrew Bynum and the selection of Anthony Bennett, Zeller is the likely fifth man out of the Cavaliers big men. Bynum and Varejao figure to play ahead of him at center, and if the Cavaliers wanted to use him at power forward, they’d have to justify taking minutes away from Anthony Bennett and Zeller. Neither of scenarios are particularly likely, but there are still minutes out there for Zeller – and despite his struggles, he deserves them.
This doesn’t even mention the fact that he’s injury insurance for Bynum and Varejao, both of whom have had well chronicled injury problems over their careers. And it wouldn’t it be better for the their backup to be acclimated through playing time rather than coming off the bench when called upon?
Anyway, let’s take a look at Zeller’s shot frequency chart from last season.
As you can see, like most big men, he took his shots right around the rim, likely due to a result of layups and put backs on the offensive glass. But look at where his other shots took place: all on the outside. Comparatively, take a look at Thompson’s frequency chart.
As you can see, compared to Thompson, Zeller can stretch the floor and create spacing that his teammates can’t. Granted, Bennett will provide a similar skill, but he’s also not a legitimate seven-footer like Zeller. At center, Varejao can space averagely, but nothing on the level of Zeller. As for Bynum, he’s almost exclusively a near-rim player.
Let’s next take a look at Zeller’s shot percentages from outside the paint.
While these numbers aren’t great, they aren’t awful either. Shots like the left baseline and left elbow are solid areas for Zeller to shoot from off pick and pops. And if Zeller can improve from those areas and get into the 42-45 percent range across the board, which would put him near his college statistics, that would be ideal. He becomes a solid weapon that can help create space in the paint for players like Kyrie Irving and Dion Waiters, who are at their best when attacking the rim. Also, this helps fellow bigs like Bynum and Thompson that are at their best near the rim.
There are a few potential lineups that maximize Zeller’s skill set. Particularly, a lineup of Irving, Waiters, C.J. Miles, any big not named Bennett and Zeller piques my interest. That type of lineup, with two good three-point shooters, a rebounding big and a slasher would free up key areas for Zeller in the pick and pop/ roll game. For example, a pick and roll with Irving where Zeller rolls to the pick side of the baseline could set him up for open jumpers when the opposing defense inevitably collapses on Irving. Or, if Irving/Waiters runs the pick and roll with the other big, Zeller could set up on the opposite side of Miles for a jumper on the elbow or a little outside.
I’m not suggesting that Zeller deserves the 26 minutes a game he played last season. He might not even deserve to play 20 due to his struggles on defense and with his rebounding. At this point, he hasn’t proved that he’s physical enough to play major minutes on a playoff team. But considering the skill sets of the other Cavalier bigs, Zeller deserves to be part of the Cavaliers rotation next season, even if it’s for 15 minutes a game. His skill set gives the Cavaliers options they wouldn’t have otherwise and can help space the floor – something the Cavaliers will be in need of come next season.