The Celtics played an integral role in helping the Cavs create the necessary cap room to bring LeBron back to Cleveland. Danny Ainge wasn't just involved because he wanted to thwart his long time nemesis Pat Riley, but also because he was intrigued by the prospect of acquiring a young, cheap, and athletic 7-footer for next to nothing. Ownership promised fireworks this summer, and although Tyler Zeller might not be what fans had in mind, he will definitely be an asset to the C's going forward.
Zeller will be able to do things on the defensive end that the big men on the roster simply couldn't this past year, as our Kevin O'Connor covered. In addition to how he'll help defensively, Zeller will prove to be a valuable cog on the offensive side of the ball as well in 2014-15. He is a good finisher with both hands around the basket and is a better jump shooter than you might think. He is a great athlete for his size, and reports are that he gained 15 pounds of muscle this offseason to better deal with opposing big men on the blocks. Zeller is not an All-Star, but he's no slouch either.
Brad Stevens has known Zeller since his high school days in Indiana, where Zeller was ‘Mr. Basketball' in 2008. The coach is well aware of Zeller's skill set, as he told Chris Forsberg at ESPNBoston:
"First and foremost, I think he's a great transition rim-runner," he said. "I think he can really get out and fly up and down the court. And I think that showed itself a lot at North Carolina. A guy with his skill can score on the block but also stretch the defense and has enough handle and savvy to play facing the basket. And you can kind of play around him -- not too dissimilar from some of other big guys that we have now. He's 7-foot, 250 pounds, and takes really good care of himself and is an invested pro."
Stevens likes to move the ball up the floor quickly, so Zeller will be a welcome addition. Rajon Rondo likes to push the tempo as well, and after years playing with prodding veterans, he will enjoy the chance to get out on the break with young guys like Zeller. Connecting on a few more fast breaks per game can help the Celtics get some easy baskets, something they have really struggled to do in the past.
Zeller can score from the block on occasion thanks to his size, and the added bulk should help in backing down undersized bigs in the low post. Still, Zeller has always been better attacking the rim by facing up and working in space - especially off the pick and roll. With his athleticism and good hands, Zeller is an ideal fit to play the ‘Tyson Chandler role' as the roller off a screen. The Tar Heel can also move well without the ball, an attribute that bodes well when playing with Number 9.
In Cleveland, Kyrie Irving is a budding superstar, but without a doubt his first inclination is to score the ball. In Boston, Zeller has a point guard who will be looking to dish to his new big man whenever possible - and even sometimes when it appears it isn't. Zeller has already come to this realization, as he told Emily Austen in an interview just after the trade:
"He's unbelievable. He threw a pass the other day in pick-up I still don't know how he got it there. If he continues to make passes like that, he can make a lot of people look very good - I'm excited to play with him...He makes passes that don't look like they're possible to make."
An underrated aspect of Zeller's game is his jump shooting. Last year, when he stepped away from the basket, he actually put up very good numbers from mid-range. According to stats.nba.com, on shots from 15-19 feet, Zeller shot 51.1%. For players who shot at least 45 shots from that range last season, Zeller was 10th in the whole league! Granted, it's a small sample size, but it's not insignificant either. On a Celtics team that clearly has no problem experimenting (see Jared Sullinger) the Celtics will encourage Zeller to try to maintain that efficiency over more attempts.
Not only will playing with Rondo help the 7-footer, I think having Zeller on the roster will really help the Celtics point guard. The Celtics have not had a skilled big who played predominantly around the basket since the season Shaq laced them up for the Green in 2010-11. Shaq was a shell of himself that year, but simply putting his big body in the paint was huge in giving Rondo a safety valve when he drove to the basket.
The first 15 games that Rondo and Shaq played together of the 10-11 season, when Shaq was healthiest, Rondo averaged over 14.5 assists per contest. (That's including the ridiculous 10-24-10 line he put up against the Knicks as well as the 12-23-10 line he dropped on the Spurs...sometimes we forget how good Rondo was and how good he can be. Look at those lines!) Zeller is no Shaq - and never will be - but he has good instincts and can finish around the basket, something the Celtics have lacked the past couple years.
Towards the end of last year, Zeller really made strides and showed some of his potential coming to fruition. In the last 5 games of the season, Zeller averaged 13.6 points and 7.6 rebounds on just over 22 minutes a game (if only the whole season consisted of just the games in April, the Celtics would have two 7-foot All-stars in Tyler and Kelly Olynyk). It is not unreasonable to expect Zeller to put up similar numbers for this season as a whole given the opportunity for minutes and the chance to play with Rondo.
The Cavaliers may be ecstatic with who they got after trading Zeller, but the Celtics should be pretty excited with the guy they got, too. Skilled 7-footers don't grow on trees, and it will be fun for Celts fans to see what Zeller can do playing with the best passer in the league. The big fella can expect plenty of dimes from his new floor general this season - even if he has no idea how they get there.