Paving the Way for Z.0

September 13, 2012
by Joe Gabriele Managing Editor

This past July – during Summer League in Vegas – Cavaliers coaches and players nicknamed their rookie center with a single letter – “Z.”

That might not be a big deal if Tyler Zeller had played for the Mavericks – the team that originally selected him in the 2012 NBA Draft. But once he became a member of the Wine and Gold, the nickname took on a whole new meaning.

Zeller, the 17th overall pick this past June, is Cleveland’s new man in the middle – where a legendary former Cavalier with the same nickname once roamed. But Zeller’s not worried about filling those shoes just yet. Right now, he’s just looking to get his feet wet.

The 7-0, 250-pound Zeller 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.

In his first action as a Cavalier in Las Vegas, Zeller – whose older brother played at Notre Dame and whose younger brother plays for the University of Indiana – was the Cavaliers most consistent player. He averaged 11.4 points and a team-leading 7.2 boards and 1.0 block per contest.

Zeller was as advertised. He had only one poor shooting game, was a strong offensive rebounder – exactly half of his 36 boards were on the offensive end – and shot 90 percent from the stripe. Experts who said he’ll be a solid-to-very-good NBA center for a dozen years looked to be right on target.

The big man from Washington, Indiana realizes he has a long way to go to live up to Zydrunas Ilgauskas’ famed nickname. But he can lean on the Large Lithuanian – now part of the Cavaliers front office – for advice on how to get there.

Tyler Zeller took minute away from practice to talk about his new relationship with Big Z, his days on Tobacco Road and what it was like growing up as one-third of a basketball-crazy brotherhood …

What’s your first offseason in Cleveland been like so far?
Tyler Zeller: It’s been good. It’s been kind of an all-over-the-place experience. I came to my new apartment with a bed, a TV and a TV stand.

You were probably the team’s most consistent performer at Summer League in Vegas. How would you rate your performance?
Zeller: I think it was something that – going into it, I was very nervous – just because it was a new level of basketball. It was all new. But I think I played fairly well.

I found a lot of places where I need to improve. The new rules – like the defensive three-second – is something that’s completely new. So being able to get used to that was nice.

ZellerBut I’m really looking forward to playing the real games, in the league where you’re going against the best of the best. Just kind of seeing where I fit in there. And that’s really where I’m at. When I have a good game against Dwight, that’s when I’ll feel good.

Obviously, I’m going to have some rough games; I’m going to struggle sometimes. But that’s part of being a rookie.

Was there anything that really opened your eyes in Summer League?
Zeller: You have to get used to the athleticism at every spot. Whereas in college you have one to three players who are really good and the other two are just out there. In the NBA, you have five great players.

And you have to use different principles and different rules. So it was nice to get my feet wet with some of this.

Coaches and teammates were calling you “Z” during Summer League. Have you had a chance to speak with the original: Zydrunas Ilgauskas?
Zeller: A little bit. I’ve asked questions here and there. Big Z’s been great as far as me being to bounce stuff off him from time to time. And I think as the season goes on I’m going to talk to him more and more. It’s kind of one of those things I don’t know yet. So once the season gets going, I’ll have more questions.

You’ve got a pretty famous basketball family. Are there any more Zeller brothers we should keep an eye out for?
Zeller: Nope. One older, one younger. That’s all.

What were those competitions like when you were younger?
Zeller: It was great, growing up! Actually, it still is to this day. But obviously, it only happens once or twice a year.

It’s something that I think my parents did a great job of teaching us: We can get after each other; we can almost hate each other on the court. But as soon as we step across that line, it’s over with. You have to love each other and stick up for each other.

Kind of our family motto’s always been: ‘We’re gonna pick on each other, but we’ll never let anyone pick on us’.

But the one-on-one games are great. We always kind of bounce ideas off each other. And we go at each other.

Have to ask it: Who wins?
Zeller: I would say that I would win. But I’ve gotten in trouble for answering that before. We’re very competitive. I’ll win one. Cody’ll win one. Luke will win one.

Ultimately, it comes down to one of those ‘final games’ where we really go at each other. It’s a blast.

My dad’s ended up with a couple black eyes, a broken nose, and he’s started to get old enough where he’s like: ‘You guys go ahead.’

Did you three drive your mother crazy, smashing up the house?
Zeller: (laughs) We actually got lucky because my mom coached junior high girls basketball. And then my mom became athletic secretary. And the athletic director was my coach.

So we always had keys to the gym. We never had stories of getting the shovel and scooping out the driveway in the winter time. We’d just get into the car and went to the gym. It was great!

Is basketball a “religion” in the state of Indiana?
Zeller: It really is. Northern Indiana is kind of like that. But southern Indiana is crazy about their basketball.

ZellerWe have a gym that seats 7,000. We averaged between 4,000-5,000 fans per game. And we actually had two games in my senior year that we actually sold out. There was one game in the tournament where we had to turn away 500 people at the door, and we had standing room around the top only.

It’s just crazy like that. And then we won by 20.

At North Carolina, did you accomplish just about everything you set out to in your four years there?
Zeller: Yes and no.

I accomplished everything except getting another National Championship. I really treasure the one I won my freshman year. But I always wanted to win one where I had a bigger role. That was something I was really going after.

But other than that, I think I accomplished almost everything else I wanted to. I got a lot of individual awards, but I’m prouder of the ACC Championships we won and the National Title we won my freshman year.

You were an Academic All-American in your final two years at Chapel Hill. What was your major?
Zeller: I was a business major. I actually enjoyed it. I thought my business classes were easier than my pre-requisites.

I had an internship at a financial institution analyzing hedge funds. I really just enjoyed it. It’s something where you never had to worry about me going to class because I was always there. I thought tests were easier if you went, and I actually enjoyed class anyway.

The famous former Tar Heels are known to be very active and involved alumni with the current team. Is there ever pressure that comes with North Carolina basketball?
Zeller: I think that’s the great part about it, that it’s a family. There’s no pressure – nothing like that.

We have pros come back all the time and we’ve had pick-up games that were great.

I know I went back for a couple weeks between Summer League and coming here and we had 10 pros that were playing. Me, personally, now that I’ve graduated, it’s great to be able to go back and say we’ve got Rasheed Wallace, Sean May, Brendan Haywood and all those guys playing with us.

When I was in college playing against them, it really just gave me a perspective on the next level up. They’re so quick and athletic, it showed me where (I) needed to get to.

As a 24-year-old rookie, you’re already one of the oldest bigs on the team. This year’s team is very young. Is that a cause for concern or excitement?
Zeller: A little of both.

ZellerObviously, you have to be a little concerned because we are so young. We have a long way to go and we have a lot to learn about the league and our team and ourselves. And it’s something that, over time, we’ll be able to learn. Give us two or three years and hopefully we can become a very good team. Hopefully, we have a very good season this year.

But there is that excitement that there is such a young core and that we’ll be together for the next few years, at least.

It’s difficult to tell before Training Camp has even tipped off, but how do you see your role with the Cavs?
Zeller: I think it’s something right now – I can spread the floor, I can shoot the ball, I can rebound. And I think I’m just going to have to find my niche, what they need me to do.

As the season goes on, we’ll figure that out. But right now, I’m just trying to just become a better player every day. And once we start practice, I’ll start figuring that out.

Coach Scott’s system requires big men who can defend and run the floor. Do you think it’ll suit you well?
Zeller: I think so. It is a different system. It’s a very fast system. We played that way at North Carolina.

I actually had a coach – way back when – who I was terrified of. I was in sixth or seventh grade and he made us run all the time – and he yelled at me. But I really appreciate it now, because I’m good running the floor.

And you feel like you’re prepared for “Camp Scott”?
Zeller: I’ve heard it’s very rough. But I’m interested to see what it’s about.

As bad as people talk about it, are they trying to overhype it? Is it really that bad? I’ll be interested to see how it is.

Realizing that haven’t played a single NBA game yet, from just what you’ve seen so far, how good can this team be?
Zeller: I think we can be good. Obviously, we have a lot of work to do. But hopefully at the beginning of the year we’re able to mesh together and over the course of the season we’ll have a lot of room to improve and really mesh and play well together.

And hopefully by the end of the year, we’ll be hitting our stride and make a run.

Sounds like you’re ready to roll …
Zeller: I love the organization. I love the city. I think it’s a great fit. I look forward to coming in and working out with the guys every day.

It’s a great group and I’m really looking forward to getting started.