Draft Preview: Cody Zeller

Versatile Indiana 7-footer could be ideal complement to Monroe, Drummond

Cody Zeller
Indiana forward Cody Zeller
Jason Miller (NBAE/Getty)
(Editor’s note: Ninth in a recurring series leading to the 2013 NBA draft. Coming Monday: Anthony Bennett.)

The college player who most surprised NBA personnel executives by not declaring for the draft in 2013 is Marcus Smart, projected as a top-three pick before announcing he’d return for his sophomore season at Oklahoma State. Last year’s big surprise was Cody Zeller.

The last of three high-profile Indiana brothers – Luke played at Notre Dame and last season debuted with the Phoenix Suns, Tyler went to North Carolina and was a 2012 No. 1 pick – Cody Zeller was projected to go ahead of the Pistons, picking ninth, a year ago.

This year, in a draft considered among the weakest in recent seasons, most credible projections have Zeller available when the Pistons pick at No. 8.

That would indicate Zeller’s sophomore season was somehow a disappointment, yet the numbers don’t reflect that. Playing in the nation’s best conference, Zeller and teammate Victor Oladipo – more certain than Zeller to be off the board when the Pistons pick – led Indiana to the Big Ten regular-season title and a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament. He averaged 16.5 points and 8.1 rebounds, up from 15.6 and 6.6 as a freshman.

Zeller’s perceived plunge, it appears, is as much a product of failing to meet increased expectations as a realistic snap shot of where he stands in relation to those around him. Of all the players who are expected to be in range for the Pistons, Zeller might be the one who gets plucked off the board before the eighth pick rolls around. If he’s there, he’ll make the Pistons think long and hard about the possibilities he’d present, in addition to Greg Monroe and Andre Drummond.

His performance at the NBA draft combine in Chicago last month began to restore momentum to Zeller’s side. Though scouts always appreciated Zeller’s end-to-end speed – his effectiveness in transition is one of his biggest NBA appeals – they never expected that he’d put up a better three-quarter court sprint time than Oladipo and Kansas’ Ben McLemore, the two most athletic wings projected to be lottery picks.

But that’s exactly what Zeller did, posting a time of 3.15 seconds topped by only four other players in Chicago, none of them big men. Zeller’s standing vertical leap of 35½ inches was the best of any player 6-foot-9 or better over the last decade and his lane agility – essentially a measure of lateral quickness and change-of-direction ability – was in line with some of the top-ranked point guards.

Zeller resists the notion that he somehow is a lesser prospect as a sophomore than he was thought to be in 2012.

“I thought we had a great year, individually and as a team,” he said in Chicago. “We had a high expectation for the season. Obviously, we would have liked to win the national championship, but we still won the best conference in the country. I thought I had a great year individually. My numbers went up from my freshman year and I had all the attention with double and triple teams. So the numbers don’t show it as much, but I thought I improved a lot from my freshman and sophomore year.”

The major reservation expressed by amateur evaluators, at least, starts with Zeller’s limited reach. His wing span as measured in Chicago is 6-foot-10¾. That beat the myth that it was only 6-foot-8, but most NBA big men who prove effective defenders have a wing span that exceeds their height.

By comparison, Drummond measured 6-foot-11¾ at the 2012 draft combine with a wing span of 7-foot-6¼. Zeller measured in at 7-foot-0¼ at Chicago, taller than Drummond but with a wing span more than a half-foot shorter. Those short arms, coupled with the memory of Zeller struggling to get shots off in the paint against Syracuse as Indiana bowed out in the NCAA tournament, lead to doubts about his ability to score against bigger and more athletic NBA defenders.

But Zeller displayed admirable resourcefulness as a scorer, as any Michigan fan would painfully recall from the regular-season finale, when his 25-point, 10-rebound performance led the Hoosiers to a comeback win that cost the Wolverines a share of the Big Ten title. He’s adept at facing up from the elbows and dribbling with either hand, displaying outstanding body control, nimble footwork and finishing ability with either hand. That ability to contort his body and use either hand around the rim forced teams to foul him at an eyebrow-raising rate. Zeller averaged 7.2 free throws a game and converted better than 75 percent.

Zeller believes – and Indiana insiders and scouts who view Zeller favorably concur – that his skills will be put to use in a variety of ways that weren’t exploited at Indiana, where Tom Crean needed Zeller’s size and athleticism nearer the rim. Zeller’s speed, footwork and agility should lend themselves to a pick-and-pop game in the NBA while also serving him well in guarding away from the rim.

Zeller, he said, believes NBA teams view him as “more of a four. A lot of comparisons to LaMarcus Aldridge. Guys like that. More catching in the mid-post and using my quickness. I didn’t shoot it as much from outside this year, but I think I have that ability. It’s not a huge adjustment for me. It’s just kind of proving what I already know I can do. We had so many different weapons, so many different scorers, the team didn’t need me shooting it.”

Zeller took a grand total of two 3-point shots in his IU career, but says he’s already comfortable at the college distance and is working on extending his range to the NBA arc. Those who’ve seen him in workouts confirm Zeller’s claims of looking at ease stroking perimeter shots.

If teams take Zeller in the top 10, they’re going to expect him to be more than a specialist, of course, but if Zeller can eventually fill the “stretch four” role in addition to maintaining his ability to score in the ways he did at IU, he’s going to prove himself a very valuable NBA player. The Aldridge comparison is frequently brought up, as are similarities to Chris Bosh. While not as physically mature as David West, Zeller also projects some of the Indiana power forward’s scoring versatility.

If the Pistons agree with the high end of Zeller appraisals, they might see an ideal No. 3 big man to move in alongside Monroe and Drummond. Zeller, perhaps unlike Alex Len, could play with either one of them and thrive. If Zeller hits on the high end of expectations as Monroe and Drummond are well on their way to doing, Joe Dumars could shut down big man scouting for the next decade.

Zeller and Monroe would allow them to exploit the opposition’s weaker interior defender by isolating them in mid- and low-post situations. Zeller and Drummond together would give the Pistons scary transition possibilities, given their rare end-to-end speed.

“I think the biggest difference is teams will have to game plan for (his transition speed) even if I’m not scoring, which is the same thing we did in college,” Zeller said. “Even if I’m not the one scoring, they have to have someone back. They have to game plan for it and a lot of people pinch in and our shooters get shots from the outside. A lot of people don’t realize that even if I’m not the one scoring, it’s still beneficial for our team.”

NBA teams that ask the input of Zeller’s college coach are likely to get an earful from Crean, well known and respected by NBA staffs dating to his days at Marquette and the job he did identifying and developing Dwyane Wade. Crean raved about Zeller’s competitive fire, coachability and desire to improve through his two years in Bloomington.

“What I always pride myself on is winning and competing,” Zeller said. “Things you can’t necessarily measure. If the team wins, then that’s all that matters to me.”