Tyler Zeller is starting to come into his own with the Boston Celtics and that should come as no surprise, yet the universal sentiment appears to be that of bewilderment.
Zeller shined on Monday night, with 19 points, seven rebounds, three assists, and countless hustle plays that go beyond the box score.
Yet, after the game, the discussion centered on the "emergence" of Zeller, as if it was his first game with a noticeable positive impact.
"He's always looked comfortable," Celtics captain Rajon Rondo said when asked about Zeller's performance. "I played with Zeller before training camp and he's our best roller. He has great hands and great touch with both hands around the rim, so he's getting more minutes and he's earning them."
Rondo is right. Zeller has always looked comfortable, but it's not just this season; he has always been productive, regardless of the level he's played at.
Zeller was highly ranked out of high school as an RSCI top 25 player in 2008, he won 2012 ACC Player of the Year, and he was drafted 17th by Cleveland. With a productive rookie season, averaging 7.9 points, 5.7 rebounds, and 1.2 assists per game, he was named to the NBA's All-Rookie Second Team.
But after seeing his role dip as a sophomore, the 7-footer is right back on track this year with Boston. Zeller is finally receiving heavy minutes and he's performing on a bigger stage.
Part of the reason for Zeller's "slow start" wasn't just about integrating into a new system or building chemistry with teammates, but it was related to getting adjusted to his brand new body.
Zeller told CelticsBlog that he gained 15-pounds of muscle this offseason, which has taken some getting used to.
"Anytime you gain that much weight you move a little slower," Zeller said. "I'm just trying to make sure I don't lose as much explosiveness. There are certain things that used to be second nature, and now you don't get there quite as quick, but now you might much more explosively. These kind of changes you just need to get used to."
Boston's 28th-ranked defense has struggled this season, but it's been at its best with Zeller on the floor, with a 106.5 defensive rating. While that total is quite average, nearly all of the team's frontcourt combinations are better statistically with him on the floor.
We'll have more on that tomorrow, but Boston's starting frontcourt (Jared Sullinger, Kelly Olynyk, and Jeff Green) has a Net Rating of +5.2, but with Zeller replacing Olynyk, that differential jumps to +37.1.
Part of the reason for Boston's effectiveness with Zeller on the floor is his low post defense. Celtics fans remember the value of Kendrick Perkins, due to his ability to battle down low with behemoth big men, and now Zeller is making a similar impact.
The Celtics have already gone to battle with three of the league's strongest big men: Dwight Howard, Roy Hibbert, and Steven Adams. Zeller did an admirable job defending all three, especially compared to his teammates, who were often bullied by their brute strength.
"It definitely helped against those guys," Zeller said of his added muscle. "I've been able to guard them the past couple of years and do some things, but at the same time you got a lot of room to grow."
Being able to absorb a blow to the chest is crucial, and now Zeller's added larger body can take those hits, but he's also better able to deny ideal low post positioning before the ball gets to his man.
In the four clips above, Zeller displays his ability to handle a larger player, by using his own combination of strength and fundamentals. In clip one, he stays in front of Hibbert, steers him baseline, and forces him into a low percentage fadeaway before getting whistled for a "superstar foul." On the third clip, Howard almost beats Zeller with a quick spin move, but he's still corralled underneath the baseline before almost turning the ball over, which is what happened in the final clip against Adams.
Zeller is a genius when it comes to understanding "timing and spacing," which helps him on the defensive end, but it's also the primary reason for his ridiculous field goal percentage this season.
With an 86.2 field goal percentage, Zeller leads all qualifying players, and his shot chart is even more impressive with only attempt outside of the paint. As MassLive's Jay King wrote, "Zeller might have the NBA's most boringly effective shot chart."
Except boring is probably the last thing it is, because the plays themselves are quite exhilarating to witness. Zeller isn't just scoring off of traditional pick-and-rolls or backdoor cuts, which he is certainly excelling at, but off of pure hustle plays, like getting ahead of the defense in transition and on offensive rebound tip-ins.
"Anybody that does those types of things, it helps," coach Brad Stevens said when asked about Zeller's hustling. "If you win effort plays with anybody it inspires your team."
The compilation of plays above only shows a glimpse of the impact a hustling Zeller has made not just on Monday night, but this entire season.
In transition, Zeller has consistently displayed his "rim-running" abilities that Stevens spoke of in preseason, by running like a gazelle in the open field, beating the defense back for easy dunks and layups. And in the half court, Zeller is always probing, timing his cuts as he prepares to receive a dump-off pass from the ball handler. And if he doesn't get the pass, he almost always crashes the boards, looking for tip-outs rebound opportunities or tip-in for points, as shown in the clips above.
When asked after Monday's game about the overlooked "little things" he does on the floor, Zeller chuckled, understanding that they don't always show up in the box score.
"You just have to go out and play hard. If coach likes what you do, you get more minutes, and if he doesn't, you don't," he said. "You just have to go out and do what you do and hopefully coach likes it, so you can continue to play that way."
Tyler Zeller's impact has gone beyond the box score and the coaching staff has appreciated it by growing his role each game. At this rate, it probably won't be long before Zeller is the starting center for the Boston Celtics, which will benefit the team greatly as they look to steady the ship this season.