Tyler Zeller had a rough rookie season. He was drafted to be a longterm backup center and many expected him to have a nice, productive career. But the Cleveland Cavaliers' season quickly went off the rails when Anderson Varejao suffered a season ending injury and Zeller was thrust into an entirely different role. Rather than playing 15 minutes per game as a backup center, Zeller became a starting center in the NBA.
It's safe to say that the Cavaliers didn't plan on Tyler Zeller starting 55 games and playing over 26 minutes per game, but that's what happened. When Varejao went down, he was the only logical option to start at center. Unsurprisingly, Zeller frequently looked overmatched against other NBA starting centers. It appeared as though he was getting bullied and struggling to adjust to the physicality of NBA big men. It seemed like he was often just a step behind as he tried to catch up to the speed of the NBA game. Based on what Cavs fans saw from Tyler Zeller in his rookie season, it's not surprising that he's merely an afterthought going into the 2013-14 season. But I would argue that if last season taught us anything, it's that the development on Tyler Zeller is actually a pretty important part of the Cavaliers' future.
The Cavs made their biggest splash this offseason by signing Andrew Bynum. It's still not clear when Bynum expects to be back on the court, but his potential impact on this team is obviously incredibly high. The team will also welcome back Anderson Varejao and expect him to be fully healthy for the start of the season. Throw in the addition of Earl Clark and the continued development of Tristan Thompson and I can see why Cavs fans aren't putting all that much thought into Tyler Zeller. But if you paid any attention to last year, it's apparent that an afterthought can quickly become your starting center -- especially when the two main guys in front of him are as injury prone as Varejao and Bynum. Most people are expecting the Cavs to be much improved this year and fight for a playoff spot in the Eastern Conference. But much of that assumes they have better luck with injuries than they did last year. As a Cavs fan, I hope that they do. In Varejao's case, the injuries seem like flukes rather than one on-going problem. But at the same time, would anybody be stunned if Tyler Zeller ends up having to start 20 games at center this year? I sure wouldn't.
And that's why Zeller's development is a lot more important than most people seem to think. Watching him in person at Las Vegas Summer League, he looked as though he had made some significant improvements, specifically to his body. He claimed that he put on about 25 pounds and while that number may be inaccurate, he definitely looks bigger. His legs look a lot stronger and that should help with one of his biggest issues: holding his ground. Tyler was pushed off his spot in the paint far too often during his rookie season. It's understandable because he was going up against much bigger and stronger centers, but it's something he needs to fix. Developing a stronger base will help with that. He also appeared much more aggressive on the boards. That's also a key to Zeller becoming a better NBA center. He's a legitimate 7-feet tall and his 7.8 boards per 36 minutes is a bit low for my liking. He's already quick and smart -- if he really adds some significant muscle, Zeller can be a good rebounder. Although it looked like Zeller was getting bullied as a rookie and that appeared to be the source of most of his problems, it's probably not. More likely, the issues were mental. He was a rookie and didn't really have any sort of veteran big man to show him the ropes. Once Varejao went down, Zeller was on his own. While that led to a rough rookie year, I think it will actually help him in the long run. He had the opportunity to gain a lot of experience and pick up on the little things that successful NBA players do. He'll likely improve his positioning on both offense and defense, his chemistry with Kyrie Irving and the rest of the starters, and his reaction time. Mike Brown should help put Zeller in better positions to succeed defensively as well.
None of this is to say that the success of Cleveland's season depends on how much better Tyler Zeller is in his second year. But despite me advocating for the Cavs to sign a veteran center like Jason Collins (apparently my influence on the Cavs front office is not particularly strong right now) to lighten his load, Zeller is still the only "true" center on the roster behind Bynum and Varejao. Even if those two stay healthy, it's easy to envision a situation in which the Cavs are trying to limit their minutes, thus leading to more playing time for Zeller. If Zeller plays similar to how he does last year, the Cavs could be an injury away from another seriously disappointing season. On the flip side if Zeller is much improved, he could significantly limit the downside for a team that is banking on two centers with shaky injury histories.