Season-in-Review: TYLER ZELLER

August 14, 2013
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Tyler Zeller
David Liam Kyle/NBAE/Getty Images

Season Overview: Like most players that emerge from the North Carolina program, Tyler Zeller came into the NBA as a somewhat polished product. But like almost all first-year players – polished or not – Zeller discovered the “rookie wall” a little after the midway point of the season.

Hitting the wall – or at least “leaning against it,” as former coach Byron Scott described it – wasn’t completely Zeller’s fault. Following Anderson Varejao’s injury, he was pressed into duty as the squad’s starting center 22 games into his freshman campaign.

Before being inserted into the starting lineup, Zeller had already shown why the Wine and Gold swapped two picks with Dallas to nab him after being selected No. 17 overall. Just four games into the season, on the team’s first West Coast trip, Zeller came off the bench to notch 15 points and seven boards in just 24 minutes as the Cavs surprised the Clippers in L.A.

But even that game was an illustration of the NBA’s school of hard knocks. While vying for a fourth-quarter rebound, Zeller was inadvertently elbowed by DeAndre Jordan, fracturing his left orbital bone and causing a concussion. Zeller was sent back to Cleveland and fitted for a protective mask that he’d don when he returned to action five games later.

Zeller returned and continued to be effective off the bench, notching double-figures in four games and posting a double-double in an overtime loss to Portland. But on December 19, Zeller’s days as a reserve came to an end – getting his first career start in a road matchup with the Celtics.

Zeller responded well, going 9-for-15 from the floor, dropping 20 points on one of the nastiest defenders the game’s ever known, Kevin Garnett. And the hits kept coming for the former Tar Heel, netting double-figures in five of his next six contests.

Zeller was still strong heading into the All-Star Break, going 7-for-10 for 16 points and nine boards against the Spurs before heading to Houston.

As one of four Cavaliers chosen to play in the BBVA Rising Stars Challenge, Zeller netted four points and four boards in the game. The following day, he flew back to Chapel Hill to have his No. 40 retired by North Carolina.

After the All-Star Break, Zeller put up another pair of double-figure scoring games. But he totaled just seven more the rest of the way. (Although in three of those games, he posted a double-double.) During that time, Zeller was forced to battle some of the NBA’s best bigs on a nightly basis.

When the campaign wrapped up, Zeller had 77 games under his belt – including 55 starts. In his rookie campaign, he averaged 7.9 points, 5.7 rebounds and 0.9 blocks per game. He scored in double-figures on 27 occasions, led the team in rebounding 11 times and blocked shots in 33 contests.

During his rookie season, Zeller proved that he’s a durable, intelligent, skilled center who can run the floor as well as any young big in the East. He showed an array of post moves and shoots the face-up jumper with confidence.

He and his Draft classmate, Dion Waiters, were named to the All-Rookie team, the Rising Stars roster and U.S. National Team’s mini-camp and – with a year of the NBA grind under their belt – should be poised for big things as seasoned sophomores.

Highlight: Zeller had a few nice runs during his first year in Cleveland. In the three games bracketing the All-Star Break, he averaged 14 points and 7.6 boards per contest – going 19-for-29 from the floor. In a four-game run in mid-January, Zeller tallied 12 blocked shots, including a four-swat effort against DeMarcus Cousins and the Kings. But Zeller’s 20-point effort in his first career start against Boston is something he’ll likely remember forever.

Lowlight: Zeller scored in double-figures in just one of his last eight games (although it was an 18-point effort in front of family and friends in Indiana). In two of those eight games, Zeller took the collar and didn’t grab more than six boards in any.

Odds and Ends: Zeller, a true seven-footer, had a pretty dramatic growth spurt. He was 5-10 going into seventh grade and 5-11 coming out of eighth grade. He was 6-8 going out of ninth grade. He grew roughly nine inches in one year.

By the Numbers: 5, 6, 7, 8 … Zeller’s rookie rankings, respectively, in blocked shots, rebounds, double-doubles and free throw percentage.

Looking Forward: Zeller was very impressive in Vegas Summer League, adding a few pounds of muscle to his frame and being encouraged by the new coaching staff to be more aggressive around the rim. If the Cavaliers frontline can stay healthy this season, a seasoned Zeller would join an impressive group of big men that would include Anthony Bennett, the top pick in this year’s draft, Andrew Bynum, a former All-Star and two-time NBA Champ, and Anderson Varejao, who led the league in rebounding before being injured. If healthy, one of the Wine and Gold’s weak spots would suddenly be their strength.

Quotable: Tyler Zeller on being thrown into the starting lineup as a rookie …

“It is physically exhausting, especially with Andy out and playing more minutes. It’s not a ton more minutes, but it’s a few more. And you start to feel the back-to-backs; they start to wear on you a little more. You just have to find a way. You have to make sure you continue to eat right and find the energy somehow. And you sleep a lot, too.”