Tyler Zeller, Year Two: The Improvement of the Cavs’ Underrated Youngster

Mandatory Credit: Marc Lebryk-USA TODAY Sports

With the suspension and likely dismissal of Andrew Bynum through trade or release imminent, the Cavs have increased Tyler Zeller’s minutes and made him a semi-regular part of the rotation. Since December 21st, the Cavs have played Zeller double-digit minutes in every game before the game against the Nets (where he was limited with foul trouble), and he’s played fairly well over this period. Now almost halfway through his second year with the team, Zeller looks like he’s starting to develop into an excellent backup center, with a few nice little strengths that could fit extremely well with the high-profile draft picks the Cavs have on roster. Zeller often gets forgotten in discussions of the Cavs’ young prospects, mainly because he struggled so mightily in a starting role last year. Over the last few weeks, though, his development has become readily apparent.

Zeller’s stats don’t exactly pop off the page at you, for obvious reasons. He spent much of November and December buried behind Bynum and Anderson Varejao on the depth chart, rarely seeing more than 8-10 minutes per game. His 3.3 points per game and 2.6 rebounds per game, therefore, aren’t a surprise. However, he’s been a very productive offensive player. He’s converting on 54.7 percent of his shots, and has been almost automatic in very limited chances midrange chances:


Zeller flashed this a little bit last year, but it’s really come to light this year; he’s an excellent pick-and-roll weapon because he can spot-up or crash the basket equally well. He’s 75 percent on spot-ups this year and 50 percent when shooting off a pick-and-roll, per Synergy sports. Granted, this is a small sample size for both (Just 18 total attempts), but Zeller’s been solid at putting the ball in the hole in limited opportunities, and his most effective scoring methods compliment the top scoring options on the team. Having a solid PNR big that can spot up seems perfect for a team with so many weapons that like to attack off the dribble, no?

Zeller’s rebounding is a great weapon as well, and is something that has helped the Cavs immensely when he’s on the floor. He has rebounded at a rate of 9.7 rebounds per 36 minutes, which is better than Bynum this season. That’s also an improvement from last season, when he posted 7.8 per 36. Most impressive is that Zeller grabs a ridiculous amount of contested rebounds. Zeller grabs 52.7 percent of available rebounds, which isn’t a great number. However, 53.4 percent of those are contested, meaning that an opponent was in the same area as Zeller and had the same opportunity that he did to grab the board. That’s a great number, and one that only 5 guys playing at least 15 minutes/game have bested, per SportVU data. Again, Zeller’s rebounding is in a small sample size, but it shows that Zeller isn’t shying away from battling for boards, something that he did at times as a timid rookie. As Zeller plays more, I’m confident his rebounding will continue to improve; he’s up to 10.4 rebounds/36 min. in the last 8 games.

Defensively, Zeller could stand to improve. He’s the 100th-best defensive player in the league, per Synergy, which is pretty average. He’s a sieve in pick-and-rolls, as opponents have a 54.5 percent FG%, and score 1.15 Points/possession against him in the PNR. Granted, we already know this is a team-wide problem, so it’s not surprising. Zeller’s not quick enough to hedge screens the way Anderson Varejao does, and he’s just not smart enough. It also doesn’t help that most of his PNRs involve Jarrett Jack defense, which is horrid. In post-up situations, Zeller is a little better, and I think this is where Zeller will be best served as a defender. Zeller has great size as a 7-footer that weighs 250 lbs., and he’s definitely nimble enough in the post to keep from getting burnt by quicker post-up guys. In particular, his defense against Glen Davis of the Magic in the Cavs’ win last Thursday was impressive. If Zeller has a future as a positive defender, it will likely be as a post-up defender. This actually isn’t a bad thing for the Cavs, because Tristan Thompson and Anderson Varejao are both much better defenders away from the paint, and you can rely on Zeller to at least limit major post threats while those two corral bigs who are outside threats.

Zeller’s proven to be a pretty useful player in limited minutes this season. He’s an excellent pick-and-pop big for the Cavs to utilize, and he’s been a good rebounder this season for them. Defensively, he also could have a future. Granted, much of his playing time where he’s flashed these skills has come against bench guys this season, and he’s played a lot of garbage time minutes. However, with Bynum gone, Zeller finally is starting to get a chance to showcase his improvements against better competition. I say that’s a good thing for Cleveland. In a season where everyone seems angry that none of the Cavs’ young guys seem to have improved, Zeller’s improvement is obvious.

All stats prior to Sunday night’s game vs. Indiana.

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