CHAPEL HILL, NC - FEBRUARY 27: Tyler Zeller #44 of the North Carolina Tar Heels smiles during their game against the Maryland Terrapins at the Dean E. Smith Center on February 27, 2011 in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)
If you look at the Twitter record, there were a few times that I mentioned to Conrad how high I was on Tyler Zeller in the last couple weeks. When it came time to put together our final Big Board for the Cavaliers, I moved Zeller up four spots to number 10. There was no reason to actually think that the Cavaliers had a shot at Zeller. Most people seemed to think Zeller would go somewhere between 10 and 15, and there was widespread agreement that the Cavaliers would most likely target one of the Shooting Guards should they have the opportunity to move up. But a funny thing happened. Zeller started to fall. When the Dallas Mavericks 17th pick became available, the Cavaliers used their 24th, 33rd, and 34th picks to move up and get the ACC Player of the Year. And I was happy. After the jump we will take a look at what we gave up, what we are getting, and where it fits in with the Cleveland Cavalier's plans.I am not going to spend a lot of words trying to convince people that the 33rd and 34th picks were not very valuable. When I wrote the post about Cavalier assets, I didn't list them. Are there guys that make it from the second round and become valuable contributors? Sure. Are there all-stars that come from the second round? Sure. But it just doesn't happen very often. After the trade, which also netted the Cavaliers Kelenna Azubuike, the Cavaliers are almost certain to have Anderson Varejao, Kyrie Irving, Luke Walton, Omri Casspi, Daniel Gibson, Tyler Zeller, Dion Waiters, Azubuike, Alonzo Gee, and Tristan Thompson under contract when the season begins. That is 10 roster spots that are already filled, and the Cavaliers will likely have to spend $8 million more just to hit the salary floor. Taking a second rounder or two both takes a roster spot away from possibly bringing Gee or Samardo Samuels back, but adds to the risk that we end up giving a sub-par player too much money in free agency. Furthermore, with Kyrie, Tristan, Waiters, Gee, Samardo, and at least two first rounders coming on board next season, Cleveland already has its hands full trying to develop young players. Finally, in the NBA, quality is always better than quantity. If the Cavaliers thought Tyler Zeller was significantly more likely to be a good player than whoever they thought might be available at 24, than the pick was probably a good idea.
And Tyler Zeller is a great pick. Measuring over 7-0 tall in shoes at the combine, he is a true Center with better than average athleticism. He averaged over 16 points and just under 10 rebounds per game while shooting 55% from the field and 80% from the free throw line. His turnover rate was a little high at 2 per game. He excels in transition, which should fit nicely with our core of himself, Kyrie, Waiters, and Thompson. He is smart both on and off the court, as he was the Academic All-American of the Year. He really excelled playing with John Henson, an athletic PF who blocked shots, and there is every indication he will fit in perfectly with either Varejao or Thompson. He himself won't block too many shots, but that is part of why he and Tristan will fit. While Tristan beasts on the offensive boards, Zeller is a fundamentally sound defensive rebounder. He needs to get stronger for the NBA, but he is already pretty big and has a frame that would allow him to bulk up a bit.
His hands are excellent, and he has been a decent finisher out of the pick and roll. He converted 79% of his attempts in transition. His free throw shooting isn't an aberration, he is a good shooter, which bodes well for the pick and pop. There was a game against Maryland this season where he had over 30 points, and most of his damage came at the free throw line, as he knows how to draw contact. He will not ever be a guy who you expect to create any offense for himself, and might struggle against really athletic Centers. All in all, I see Zeller as a functional starting Center in the NBA. If his shot really does improve, he has the opportunity to be a Zydrunas Ilgauskas type player, with a little more bounce in his step to defend.
Most people are of the opinion that Anderson Varejao, whether it is at the trade deadline or perhaps next season around draft time, will not finish his contract in Cleveland. Taking Zeller helps Cleveland both in a world with and without Varejao. For one, it will allow Anderson back to his natural position of Power Forward. It will lessen the Cavaliers dependency on Semih Erden and Samardo Samuels, as Thompson, Varejao, and Zeller should each be receiving 28-33 minutes per game. But I like this trade because of what it does when Varejao leaves. Theoretically, the Cavaliers now have their starters of the future at the 1,2,4 and 5 positions. There are plenty of future draft picks and cap space to make adjustments on the fly, but we have enough information now to know that Thompson and Zeller are both hard workers who want to get better, and who want to win. Whereas Zeller is reliable, steady, and smart, Thompson is explosive, active, and raw. Both have enough athleticism to guard nearly every PF and C in the NBA. Niether will probably be good enough offensively to carry their teams for more than short bursts, but if things work out, the Cavaliers backcourt is going to put a lot of pressure on teams in that regard.
Growing Pains? Yes. But make no mistake, Tyler Zeller is a building block, and a pretty darn good one at that. We may not know what we are going to get from Dion Waiters, Tristan Thompson, and Alonzo Gee as all three develop in Cleveland. Zeller is what he is, and he is what he is at the Center position. Sign me up.