First of all, I’m going to call Tyler Zeller “Cody” at least once in the next few days as I’m writing these posts. Summer League has broken me. You’ve been warned.
Offensively, there’s a surprising amount to like about Zeller’s game. Let’s give it a closer look:
In The Post
Zeller has an interesting post game. He’s not particularly quick or long, which limits him a bit despite the fact that he’s a legitimate seven footer. What Zeller lacks in athleticism and length, however, he makes up for — at least to a certain extent — with soft touch around the basket. When he has a chance to set himself, he can score nicely. He also has excellent footwork, demonstrating it on a variety of drop-steps, step-throughs and spin moves in the paint.
Having a chance to set himself in the post is important. Too frequently last season, Zeller seemed to lose his composure and attempt to make a move too quickly. It’s a complicated balancing act between setting oneself and feeling out the defense versus hurrying excessively and playing out of control. Zeller did a bit of both in 2013-14. When he caught the ball and gathered his composure, he often found himself in good position — whether that be around the basket for a layup or tossing in a baby hook. When he was out of control, his shots often caromed of the backboard without touching the rim.
Occasional wildness aside, Zeller was moderately efficient in the post. Post-ups made up 7.9 percent of his offense, per MySynergySports.com, and he shot 47.8 percent for 0.88 points per possession. As post-up efficiency goes, that’s not awful: He was 68th in the NBA among qualifying players.
What’s more, Zeller was active. He was always moving, trying to establish better position, and this got him better looks against opponents who were probably stronger than he was.
His back-to-the-basket game makes him a nice piece for the Celtics. Olynyk is more skilled as a spot-up threat than he is playing a true big man’s game, while Sullinger is simply undersized against most of his opponents and is best utilized as an offensive rebounder. If Zeller can score at even a moderately efficient rate in post-up situations, it will add some much-needed balance to Boston’s offense.
Pick And Pops
Zeller is a good pick-and-pop big, which — unfortunately — also makes him a little bit redundant on the Celtics’ roster. He doesn’t have 3-point range, but take a look at how effective he was from mid-range last season.
Zeller averaged 0.91 points per possession as the PnR roll man and shot 47 percent. A lot of his shots were from mid-range, and as you can see in the chart above, he was more than 10 percent better than league average from just about every spot outside of the lane.
As the PnR big, Zeller sets decent screens, and he finds spots on the floor where he can shoot comfortably. That’s an underrated skill, and it’s compounded by the fact that he’s willing to attack the basket if he’s given enough space. Take a look at his positioning here (at the top of the key).
As you can see, Omer Asik is coming out to defend the jumpshot, but he pauses. Zeller reads this nicely, catches Asik flat-footed and drives past him for the easy layup.
When he rolls to the basket, Zeller’s footwork is solid. He fills the lane nicely and times his dives to the hoop well. Combined with his ability to pop out and make a mid-range jumper consistently, he might do well with regular minutes and a pass-first point guard like Rondo.
Again, Zeller gets blocked frequently around the rim, and he can be a bit out of control. Both flaws might be problems with his game that won’t go away, but both might also improve when he gets regular minutes and doesn’t feel a need to prove himself as soon as he enters the game. It’s not easy to make a coach want to give you minutes, and his desire to score quickly and often might override his desire to make the right play or the right pass.
Spot-ups and Cuts
Predictably, Zeller’s pick-and-pop skills translate to his spot-up game. He shot 57.1 percent in spot-up situations, averaged 1.14 PPP and showed a proclivity for getting his feet set quickly and his shot in the air. Whereas Zeller often looked hurried and a little panicky in the post, he rarely seemed concerned by a defender coming out to contest a mid-range jumper — a good sign, since at 7’0, he’s extremely unlikely to get blocked when he catches and shoots.
Around the basket, he’s found money, and that made up much of his offense: 26 percent of Zeller’s shots were on cuts this season. He moves to open spaces and often finds himself the recipient of dump-off passes when his defender helps on a ball-handler. Part of the reason Zeller’s spot-up efficiency was so high (42nd in the NBA) was because he kept finding himself open for easy dunks. He’s not a focal point offensively, but 26 percent of his offense averaged 1.11 PPP. That’s not bad for a non-focal point.
Is Tyler Zeller exactly what Boston needed?
No. No he’s not, unfortunately. Boston needs rim protection, and Zeller offers very little.
As a help defender, he’s not good. Zeller often helps one pass away — a tactic that almost always leads to an open jumper. As a result, when Zeller is guarding a big man who can knock down jumpers, he gets himself in trouble frequently by collapsing onto a ball-handler and giving his man an open shot. Worse: Zeller is neither long nor athletic enough to contest the shot once he’s made his mistake. Serge Ibaka can afford to make a defensive mistake because he has the physical gifts to recover. Tyler Zeller…doesn’t.
Individually, Zeller is fine. He stays in front of his man and rarely gets beaten defending back-to-the-basket bigs. Face-ups can hurt him, since mobile bigs can beat him off the dribble, but for the most part one-on-one defense wasn’t the issue. He rebounds acceptably but not at an elite level, pulling down 19.6 percent of all available defensive rebounds and 10.8 percent of all offensive boards.
The issue, as is the case with all of Boston’s big men, is rim protection. Zeller just doesn’t offer any. He will still get minutes, and the Celtics will probably play him at center just because his offensive game is more traditionally center material (and, if recent trends are any indicator, Brad Stevens will probably encourage him to take corner 3-pointers a la Jared Sullinger).
Zeller might be okay. He might even be kind of good — his efficiency and per 36 numbers both improved last season, and he’ll get consistent minutes for the first time in his career. But if you were hoping Boston found its rim-protecting answer in Tyler Zeller, you are in for a disappointment.
Follow Tom on Twitter: @Tom_NBA.