The Celtics produced a center out of thin air yesterday. Well, not really, but it amounts to that. The team was very thin last year at the center spot. So much so that their plethora of power forwards spent a good deal of time filling in there out of necessity. The team defense suffered as a result and "rim protection" has been identified by Ainge and others as a real need to fill this offseason.
Does Tyler Zeller fill that need? Not exactly, but that doesn't mean he won't be very useful going forward. So just what are we getting with the former Cav? Here's a few quick scouting reports.
The 24-year-old center has averaged 6.9 points and 4.9 rebounds over two NBA seasons with the Cavaliers. The 7-footer was the 17th pick in the 2012 draft and will get a chance to develop with size-deprived Boston.
Zeller is a nice piece for a Celtics team so lacking in true centers. He isn't exactly Tyson Chandler in the paint, but he offers more rim protection than either Kelly Olynyk or Jared Sullinger and could pair well with either of Boston's young big men. For $4.3 million over the next two years, that's useful.
He's got legit center size, he's cheap (and cost controlled for the next 2 years), and he's still developing and improving.
Digging a little deeper, I turned to Fear The Sword, a Cavs blog in the SBNation family. (Note: I would have asked for a full scouting report, but they are kind of busy over there at the moment. Something to do with a guy named James).
Zeller struggled at times during his rookie season, but was thrust into a starting role when Varejao had his annual season ending injury. He tried to bulk up over the summer before his sophomore season but had an appendectomy procedure and lost much of that weight. He still managed to get into the groove and ended up last year as a very productive player for Cleveland.
Click the link below for a longer explanation, but it seems that he was taking too many mid-range shots early in his career but has been more aggressive in attacking the rim lately. That has improved his overall production offensively.
Zeller's total field goal percentage is up in large part because he is taking shots closer to the basket, and perhaps because he is being judicious in when he shoots from midrange, he has been fantastic from there thus far this season. When he gets all the way to the rim, he isn't converting at a great rate but he is pretty close to average from there.
Zeller is taking what defenses give him and getting all the way to the rim. It's led to a huge increase in efficiency. If he can keep building on this he will be a great value for the 17th pick in the draft and for the amount of money he has coming to him the next two seasons on his rookie deal. His defense needs work but he will have another offseason to bulk up. We aren't very far into his NBA career and we've seen some really promising results so far.
Speaking of defense, here are some more details on that:
He has given the Cavaliers the only rim protection they get, even if it isn't particularly good or consistent. He is still fouling at an alarming rate, at 5.1 fouls per 36 minutes, which is indicative of a player a step slow or physically overmatched. This description would seem to fit Zeller, though the eye test says Zeller has been a more capable defender this season.
Well, I think my analysis is alright, but I wanted to give Zeller a chance to counter. Here's what he said:
"You gotta be aggressive with the minutes you get. I know that most nights I'm not gonna get a ton of minutes so I am able to make my fouls count."
The point he is making is a good one. Sometimes strategy dictates a foul being the right play. Whereas Anderson Varejao knows if he is going to play 30+ minutes that he can't pick them up quickly, Zeller is free to do it when the play says it's the right way to go.
He's not a naturally good defender so there's at least some concern over a future front court of Zeller and either Sullinger or Olynyk. With that said, I don't think it is fair to paint any of those guys with a definitive "bad defender" label. Each is working hard to become better and when it boils down to it, they'll only be as good as the team defense plays. We've got attack dog defenders on the perimeter in Bradley and now Marcus Smart, so hopefully the bigs can fill a role and be part of an overall good defensive system.
He also has the ability to run the floor, something I'm sure the Celtics would like to do more often this year.
While he lacks the physicality to bang in the post like an ideal center, he has a nice short- to medium-range shooting touch, can block shots and figures to get the most out of his ability in the type of up-tempo game the Celtics have shown a propensity for during summer league.
Of course all of this assumes the Celtics keep the major pieces in place, which is frankly a bad assumption at this point. Zeller might be here for a long time, or he could be headed out the door as soon as the NBA rules allow him to be flipped as part of a package deal. The whole team could look drastically different by the end of the summer.
But for the moment, the Celtics have added a solid big man with legitimate size. That alone is a good thing.