NBA Twitter circles were set ablaze this morning as the Cleveland Cavaliers made a trade with the Brooklyn Nets and Boston Celtics to shed salary and prepare a max offer for free agent LeBron James. In the trade, first reported by Marc Stein of ESPN.com, the Cavs will ship Jarrett Jack and Sergey Karasev to Brooklyn. But the news most relevant to Tar Heel fans involves Tyler Zeller.
— Marc Stein (@ESPNSteinLine) July 9, 2014
Zeller played at UNC from 2008 to 2012. He was an NCAA Champion with the Tar Heels in 2009 and was named ACC Player of the Year and Academic All-American of the Year in 2012. He was drafted with the 17th pick in the 2012 NBA Draft by the Dallas Mavericks, but was traded to the Cavs soon after and played his first two seasons there.
Zeller struggled with injuries in his first two seasons in Cleveland and fell out of the starting lineup in the 2013-14 season. As you can see with his stats above, after starting 55 games his rookie season and being named to the NBA All-Rookie second team, he started just nine games last season.
Boston and head coach Brad Stevens will offer Zeller a fresh start with the Celtics. Boston have three main guys in the rotation down low returning- Brandon Bass, Jared Sullinger and Kelly Olynyk. The Celts also had Kris Humphries, but talks between the two groups to resign Humphries have cooled off. Zeller would work well as that fourth big off the bench and would thrive with the Celtics taking over for Humphries in a backup role.
Zeller could work really well with Marcus Smart and Rajon Rondo in pick and rolls. Zeller is a valuable asset on the pick and roll, quick and willing to attack the basket. He has also shown flashes of pick and pop potential, as he shot 48% from midrange last season, which was above the league average, per nba.com. He needs to improve on finishing at the basket, as he shot a league average rate in the restricted area last season.
Coach Stevens had toyed with the idea of Sullinger and Olynyk as stretch fours and fives. Both Sullinger and Olynyk attempted 3.5 three pointers per game last year, but shot pretty poorly while doing so. I think Stevens will allow Zeller to shoot midrange jumpers, but I hope he doesn’t try the three point experiment on Zeller, as Zeller attempted just five threes in his first two season in the NBA.
I should also keep the door open to the possibility that Zeller could be the final piece of the puzzle to a Celtics trade involving Kevin Love. The Celts have long been rumored to be seeking out the services of the Timberwolves’s star, and Zeller would be a nice trade chip for Minnesota to get back. Also, if Olynyk or Sullinger moves because of the trade, Zeller would certainly soften the blow of the loss.
Joining the Celtics will be great for Zeller’s development as well. He didn’t get steady playing time in Cleveland as the team went back and forth from trying to make the playoffs and tanking. A steady organization like the Celtics will offer Zeller the chance to flourish and work inside a system that maximizes he strengths. Zeller does have a lot of potential in the NBA. Despite his underwhelming stats from last season, he got better and better as the season went along.
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Zeller averaged the most points of any month last season in April. This was partly due to smaller sample sizes in April and the Cavs tanking to get the number one pick, but 12 points and seven rebounds a game is doable for Zeller every game. Zeller has what the Celtics are looking for- a center with upside. He hasn’t realized that potential yet because he hasn’t found the right situation so far in the NBA. Hopefully for Zeller and the Celtics, Boston becomes that perfect situation for the former Tar Heel.