Rookie Rising

December 27, 2012
Tyler Zeller
As is the case with most rookies, Tyler Zeller’s first couple months have been a whirlwind.

Seven games from now, he’ll have played more games than he did in any season at North Carolina. And even if the Cavaliers continue to heat up, they’ll still probably drop more contests this year than Zeller did in four combined seasons at Chapel Hill. He suffered a broken cheekbone and had to wear a protective mask after being elbowed by DeAndre Jordan. A recent injury to Anderson Varejao has forced him into the starting lineup. And, as a former finance major – and Academic All-American – he’s even a little concerned about the Fiscal Cliff. (And can explain his reasons at length.)

But the calm, cool and collected Zeller has taken it all in stride and looks to have found his NBA footing – and his comfort level is revealing itself on the floor. He had his best game before being concussed in L.A. by Jordan and has gradually gotten better since his return.

And he’s been even better as a starter, notching double-figures in three of those four contests.

“I think it’s just kind of been progressive,” explained the former Tar Heel. “In the Boston game I started making shots. (Unfortunately, I followed that up with two games where I didn’t make shots.)

“The thing I was always struggling with from the beginning was the different schemes. You figure out one scheme and the next team plays something completely different. You have to be able to read those. So, you really start finding your spots and you teammate’s spots against different schemes.”

Neither Zeller nor fellow rookie, Dion Waiters, have been eased into the NBA deep end. The Cavaliers are the league’s fourth-youngest team, and the duos from the Draft classes of 2011 and 2012 are the team’s cornerstones moving forward.

Zeller was the 17th overall pick this past June, originally tabbed by Dallas and immediately traded to the Cavaliers for the No. 24, 33 and 34 picks. (Those selections turned out to be guard Jared Cunningham, center Bernard James and forward Jae Crowder, respectively.)

Even Zeller’s Draft night experience wasn’t easy.

He did his first Draft night interview as a Maverick, although he knew he’d already been traded. After that, he was sequestered in a “trade room” for the next couple hours, unable to emerge until after the 55th pick. But like he seems to with most of this season’s snafus, the affable Zeller simply laughed it off. He was glad for the time to hang out with his girlfriend.

The 7-0, 250-pounder was the ACC Player of the Year as a senior at Chapel Hill – the first Tar Heel senior to do so since Phil Ford. In 2011-12, Zeller averaged 16.3 points, 9.6 boards and 1.5 blocks per contest. He was part of North Carolina’s National Championship team as a freshman and was Academic All-ACC in each of his final two seasons at UNC.

After being selected at No. 17, the Washington, Indiana native was Cleveland’s most consistent performer in Vegas Summer League and saw playing time immediately this season. But four games in, in the midst of a 6-for-10, 16-point performance in a road win against the Clippers, Zeller was decked by an inadvertent elbow.

He missed the next four contests and returned with a protective mask – becoming one of three Cavaliers to don the cumbersome apparatus. He played pretty well in it, but feels quite liberated to have it off.

“I feel much more comfortable,” smiled a visibly-relieved Zeller. “I can see much more as far peripheral. And on little touch shots inside, you have to find the rim really quick. Bounce passes are much easier and so is dribbling – but I don’t ever dribble so it doesn’t really matter.”

Since being unfettered by the mask – and inserted into the starting lineup while Anderson Varejao rests an aching knee – Zeller has looked like the player the Cavs envisioned when they dealt two additional picks for him.

In his first start – on December 19 in Boston – Zeller notched a career-high 20 points on 9-for-15 shooting. He had 12 and 11 points in the next two contests, doubling up with 10 boards in the recent victory in Milwaukee.

The Boston game, in particular, was an eye-opener. In his first start, he went toe-to-toe with one of the greatest defenders of all-time, Kevin Garnett.

“(Garnett) can really guard all five positions,” praised Zeller. “He can hedge one screen, get back, hedge another screen, come back down, tag two cutters then get to his man , challenge the shot and then go get the rebound.”

But, as you’d expect from a four-year guy with a big brain, Zeller already began to notice KG’s predilections.

“KG’s a heck of a defender, but he also loves to help weakside to try to block shots,” explained the rookie seven-footer. “So if you space out, he’s going to leave you open. And you start to pick up those kinds of tendencies.

Even though he’s more worldly than the average rookie, there’s still that first time through the league – going against players he’d previously only read about and watched on TV.

“I know when I played the Heat the first time,” recalled Zeller. “I mean, you hear about Wade and Bosh and LeBron. Personally, I just take the first couple minutes and say, ‘OK, I’m going to go do what I can.’ And then you start to see. Sure, they’re good; Bron had 30 against us. But he’s still human and you just have to be smart. You just have to know who they are and try to play their tendencies.”

As much as he’s studied opponents, Zeller’s also been lucky enough to watch and practice against the league’s top rebounder, Anderon Varejao. And he’s picked up several tricks from the cagey nine-year veteran.

“Andy’s unbelievable,” said Zeller. “He’s chases down rebounds every time; he never quits. What I’m always impressed with is offensively how he passes and dribbles. He’s a great passer. I’ve always thought, you catch it, you wait until you see something and then you start dribbling. But you always see him probing, and then dribbling into it, then he sees something and he takes off.

“So you just learn little things from him and how to play different ways.”

Like the two rookies before him – as well as his 2012 classmate – Zeller’s NBA initiation has been baptism by fire. And the Cavaliers’ early-season schedule has been brutal, for veterans as well as the incoming freshman.

“It is physically exhausting, especially with Andy out and playing more minutes,” said Zeller. “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.”

As the young Cavaliers start to make their mark – coming off two straight wins for the first time since last spring – Zeller knows he’ll have to keep his head up. Players who come from North Carolina aren’t used to losing.

“It’s tough,” he explained. “You kind of get to the end of games, and you have to make sure you have the mentality: ‘We got this. We’re gonna take this.’ instead of, “Oh no, not this again.’ It’s tough, it wears on you. But you just try to use it as motivation to keep working, keep getting better and hopefully it’ll come around.”

With Zeller getting some invaluable experience – especially in Cavalier victories – and Varejao set to return, the Wine and Gold could very well turn this season around after the holidays.

While they do, their rookie from North Carolina still has a lot on his plate. Starting in place of Anderson. Improving every day despite a tough schedule. Battling through the “rookie wall.” Learning opponents’ tendencies. Taking care of his toy baby, LaQuesha. Pondering the Fiscal Cliff.

And it’s not even 2013 yet.

It’s a lot for any rookie to handle. But talking with Tyler Zeller – calm, cool and collected – he seems like he’s got it pretty well together.