Tyler Zeller was one of the brightest surprises for the Celtics this past season. Zeller's two years in Cleveland were a mixed bag, so no one really knew what to make of the North Carolina product. When the Celtics had the chance to acquire the fluid and talented 7-footer for next to nothing, they jumped at the chance to find out for themselves.
"GodZeller" played only 14 minutes a game over the course of the first 13 games this past year, but he made the most of those minutes, converting a crazy 68.9% of his attempts. Zeller eventually worked his way into a starting role, and proved that he could maintain that efficiency over a greater number of attempts. He shot 54.9% over the course of the whole season, which was good for 6th among all players who took over 500 shots (and Zeller finished with 619).
Looking forward to this year, Zeller will have to earn his minutes again. The Celtics will have five bigs vying for playing time, and there is only so much to go around. What works in Zeller's favor is that he possesses skills that other members of the team don't, from his wide array of flip shots and floaters rolling off the pick and roll to his ambidextrous hook shots out of the post. He also adds another element to the offense with his ability to run the floor, giving the Celtics opportunities for easy baskets.
Zeller gives the Celtics an element of rim protection as well - something they certainly don't have in abundance. Zeller isn't the prototypical rim protector in that he doesn't block a lot of shots, but he makes up for it by being in the right place at the right time. He is a presence in the paint and can bother shots with his long arms and big frame.
Another interesting development over the next couple of months will be whether Zeller gets an extension. The deadline is October 31st, and reports are that both sides are open to a deal. Though he might not project as a starter on a championship team, locking up a player with his skills and size could be expensive. Zach Lowe elaborates here:
Zeller was one of last season's pleasant surprises, scoring efficiently in a variety of ways and providing on-again, off-again rim protection for a Boston defense in desperate need of it. Depending on team context, Zeller looks like either a dynamite third big man or a very nice fourth/fifth starter. Those guys are going to run into the eight figures in the new NBA, and if Boston can snag Zeller long-term for anything under $12 million, it may jump at the chance.
At first, a deal that rich might sound ridiculous, but it really isn't if you take a closer look. Under last year's cap, $10 million a year would take up almost 16%. Moving forward a couple years, when the TV money inflates the cap into the neighborhood of $110 million, that deal would only take up 9% of the cap.
Something else to take into account is Zeller (hopefully) hasn't reached his peak as a player - there is still room for him to grow. It might be shocking, but Zeller is still only 25 years old.
One area that Zeller could improve is his jump shooting. That's not in reference to his percentages, but rather his attempts. This past year, on all shots classified as "mid-range" on nba.com/stats, Zeller had the highest percentage of anyone who took more than 100 shots. He shot 68-132 from that area, which translates to 51.5%. Better than Nowitzki, better than Chris Paul, better than Bosh... number one!
Granted, Zeller didn't even take two a game, so it is a small sample size. However, Zeller made his fair share in 2013-14 as well, making 48% on 75 attempts, which was 10th of anyone who took as many attempts that year. Zeller has shown over the course of the past two years he can hit that shot with the best of them. The next step is more actively seeking that shot out in the offense. Though the midrange jumper is becoming less and less popular in today's NBA, it can still be a valuable shot when converted at that rate. If he could hit that shot on a regular basis out of the pick and pop, especially with IT4, that would add another dangerous element to the Celtics offense.
The frontcourt is definitely more crowded this season with the additions of Amir Johnson and David Lee to go along with incumbents Kelly Olynyk and Jared Sullinger, but Zeller proved last year he deserves significant minutes this year and a role on this team for years to come. It would be great to see Zeller in Boston for the long haul, and hopefully the two sides can work out a deal.
Either way, Zeller looks primed to build on his first year in Celtic green and help bring the team back to the playoffs.