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Carolina’s Zeller showed growth potential with stellar senior year

Tyler Zeller's size makes him an attractive candidate for several NBA teams.
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(Editor’s note: True Blue Pistons continues a 14-part series leading to the June 28 draft with a look at Tyler Zeller, one of seven big men who could be on the board when the Pistons pick at No. 9. Coming Thursday: Terrence Jones.)

For a player characterized as a known commodity and a low-risk, moderate-reward type, Tyler Zeller defies easy categorization. No one would dare call him an elite athlete, yet perhaps his most outstanding trait is his ability to beat defenders downcourt in transition, where he converts at a high rate. While he wasn’t the shot-blocker that North Carolina teammate John Henson was, he swatted away more than two other prospects the Pistons will consider with the ninth pick, high-end athletes Arnett Moultrie and Perry Jones III.

Thought to be a finished product after four years in Chapel Hill, what do scouts make of the fact that Zeller bumped up his rebounding numbers significantly from his junior to senior seasons, averaging 9.6 a game – up from 7.2 as a junior in nearly identical minutes – despite battling ACC leader Henson on his own team for missed shots?

What more can Zeller add to his game in the NBA?

More – and more versatile – scoring, for starters, he says.

“The fact that I am 7 feet, but I can shoot the ball, I can post up, I can do a lot of different things,” Zeller said earlier this month at the NBA draft combine in Chicago, where he confirmed that he had an individual workout with the Pistons scheduled for Auburn Hills. Media reports this week maintain Zeller, Henson, Jones, Terrence Jones, Meyers Leonard and Jared Sullinger will all participate in a Monday workout for the Pistons.

“I think I can shoot the ball much better and much deeper than people think. In college, I didn’t really spread the court as much, just because of the system I was in. But I think I can spread the court much better than people think.”

Zeller toyed with the idea of entering the NBA draft after the 2010-11 season, as did teammates Henson and Harrison Barnes, but returned for a shot at winning the NCAA title. The Tar Heels’ chances were undermined when sophomore point guard Kendall Marshall – who, along with the other three, give Carolina a shot at four lottery picks on June 28 – suffered a hand injury and was forced out of the tournament.

But it wasn’t a wasted year for Zeller, who in a weaker 2011 draft was less certain to go in the lottery than he is in the 2012 draft after a stellar senior season under Roy Williams, who says Zeller runs the floor better than any 7-footer he’s coached and gives him high marks for character.

Though Zeller can function as a back-to-the-basket center, he also flashes the ability to step outside and face the basket. He can score with either hand at the rim. In the mid-post, Zeller has honed a right-handed hook shot with surprising range. If he supports his contention that he can knock down jump shots out to the 3-point line in predraft workouts, his appeal will become more pronounced to teams looking for big men who open driving lanes by compelling opposing defenders to step out of the paint.

“I don’t think a lot of people realize he can shoot,” Barnes said of Zeller in Chicago. “He didn’t have to shoot in college; that was not part of his system. Z can shoot. He has range. He can pick and pop.”

In some respects, Zeller is similar to Greg Monroe. There might not be one area where either player stands head and shoulders above the field, but neither do they have anything approaching a substantial weakness to be exploited. And the Pistons could find considerable appeal in pairing two such players with scoring versatility and uncommon basketball IQs.

Is Zeller certain to be available with the No. 9 pick? It’s no slam dunk. He has worked out for at least two teams with picks ahead of the Pistons, Sacramento and Portland. Don’t rule out the possibility that a team scheduled to pick ahead of the Pistons will trade out of its spot to teams looking to pick ahead of Detroit, much as Charlotte jumped from 9 to 7 a year ago on the belief that the Pistons would be taking a big man.

“I don’t know much,” Zeller said of his likely draft range. “Hopefully lottery, but we’ll see.”

If Zeller gets past the Pistons, he could go as soon as 10th to New Orleans – he worked out for the Hornets before the combine among a group that included Henson, Moultrie and Terrence Jones – or to Milwaukee, picking 12th and looking for a big man to replace the traded Andrew Bogut.

Zeller showed in Chicago the promise to be a capable pick-and-roll defender, posting a lane agility time better than most big men. Increasingly, the ability to step out and make the ballhandler pick up his dribble or take a wider angle of attack on pick-and-roll plays is critical for NBA centers and power forwards.

“I think they feel I can do it fairly well,” Zeller said of how teams view his capacity to defend the pick and roll. “I had to do it a lot in college. Duke loved running it. Certain teams did – not as much as in the NBA, but I have been exposed to it, so I just have to get used to a little different style and quicker players.”

Consistency was a hallmark of Zeller’s play. Once ACC play began for Carolina in early January, Zeller scored in double figures in 22 of the season’s final 23 games – he scored nine in the other – and grabbed at least seven rebounds in all but four of those games.

A decade or so ago, it became something of a stigma, perhaps, to have stayed in college for four years, each season diminishing the potential for improvement in the eyes of some. It might have been that way for Zeller if he hadn’t shown tangible areas of growth throughout his college career, capped by being named ACC Player of the Year and a second team All-American despite having to share the spotlight on a stacked Tar Heels roster. Now he is selling himself as someone NBA ready and a sure thing.

“I think coming in next year, I can give some minutes,” he said. “Possibly start, depending on the team, but I think I am capable of playing next year. I think I have a lot of room to develop still, but at the same time I think I am capable of playing next year.”