Sophomore Restart

January 29, 2012
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Tyler Zeller
David Sherman/NBAE/Getty Images

The journey has only spanned a few months, but returning to his rookie rhythm – and improving upon it – hasn’t been an easy one for Tyler Zeller.

After starting 55 games in his rookie season in Cleveland, Zeller got his first start of 2013-14 on Tuesday night against the Pelicans with Anderson Varejao sidelined with a left knee injury suffered one game earlier.

The Wine and Gold dropped the decision to New Orleans, but Zeller had his best game of the season (joining another young Cavalier – Anthony Bennett – who also turned in his best performance of the year). In just 21 minutes of play, Zeller posted his first double-double of the season with 13 points and 10 rebounds.

Along with his 2012 Draft class teammate, Dion Waiters, Zeller has played with the second unit for the majority of the season – something he doesn’t have a problem with.

“There have been a lot of times in my life that I haven’t started, so I’ve learned to play coming off the bench,” said Zeller. “Coming off the bench, everybody else is already going, so you have to kind of get going quicker. But also, coming off the bench, you can kind of watch and see what’s going on and kind of get the flow of the game. When you start, you have to figure it out from the tip. So there’s positives and negatives to both of them.”

Zeller had a solid rookie season, playing in 77 games with averages of 7.9 points and 5.7 boards per contest. He joined Waiters in the Rising Stars Challenge at All-Star Weekend in Houston one year ago. He was named to the All-Rookie Second Team and was selected to play – along with Waiters and Kyrie Irving – in the U.S. National Team mini-camp in Las Vegas this past summer.

He was taken with the No. 17 pick out of North Carolina, where the 7-0, 250-pounder was the ACC Player of the Year as a senior, the first Tar Heel senior to do so since Phil Ford. In his final season at Chapel Hill, 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 four seasons at UNC.

But it’s been tougher sledding as a second-year player. Looking to be one of the first bigs off the bench heading into 2013-14, Zeller’s season got off to a tough start. He injured his hip in the Wine and Gold Scrimmage and, even before the preseason had wrapped up, was forced to undergo an emergency appendectomy after he was diagnosed with an acute appendicitis.

(When shown his bobblehead for the first time, the quick-witted Zeller joked: “That looks like me before my appendix was taken out.”)

That setback kept Zeller out of the preseason but he was still able to bounce back – and midway through the first month, he was feeling like himself again.

“(I started with) individual workouts and I got back into it pretty quick,” recalled Zeller. “It’s easy when you don’t have to make reads and do anything like that. But probably December, maybe middle of November. I could kind of tell – I made leaps and bounds, there was a week or two in there were I really started to get into it. I started to see it, everything started slowing down again.”

Aside from his quick wit, Zeller can also be brutally honest, and he freely admits that he’s not huge on nuts-and-bolts conditioning and would much rather play his way back into shape.

“I hate conditioning,” admits Zeller, with his trademark grin. “It was brutal. I had to do conditioning every day, I knew I had to. I would do anything I could to try to get as much work done as possible on the court. It’s one of those things where I openly admit: I try to stay in shape so I don’t have to get back back in shape.”

When Zeller did return, he did so with a new set of teammates, a new coaching staff and a new system.

“Some of it is the lineup has changed, so (at the beginning) I never knew who you’re going to play with,” said the seven-footer. “And along with that, your teammates don’t know you, you don’t know your teammates as well, just as far as where they want the ball and what they want you to do. So that’s what I’ve been trying to work on, trying to learn each of my teammates over the course of the year. It’s been a challenge but it’s getting better.”

Zeller isn’t the type of guy to buy into a “sophomore jinx” or “sophomore slump,” but he does realize that opponents learn a rookie’s tendencies and it’s time to readjust to the league all over again.

“I think even a little bit at the end of last year, teams start to figure out what you like to do, what you don’t like to do, what you’re good at, what you’re not good at,” admitted Zeller. “Some of it you have to change; you can’t do the exact same thing every time. And a lot of it is just becoming better at reading things. If you’re a very structured player, you’re going to shoot it every time, they’re going to close out on you and you’re going to struggle.

“Really just learning that and putting the extra part of my game has been a big challenge.”

When Varejao returns, Zeller will likely return to his reserve role, but he can still make a big impact with one of the top scoring second units in the Eastern Conference. And in some ways, after a successful first start, his season is just beginning.

“You just have to stay as ready as possible,” concluded Zeller. “And when your number’s called, you have to be ready to go.”