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Season Overview: Tyler Zeller’s sophomore season in Cleveland can almost be summarized in four words: Slow start; strong finish.
Zeller had a solid rookie season, appearing in 77 games – including 55 starts – with averages of 7.9 points and 5.7 boards per contest. He joined his 2012 Draft classmate Dion Waiters in the Rising Stars Challenge at All-Star Weekend in Houston, 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 summer.
But it was tougher sledding as a sophomore. 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 acute appendicitis.
Zeller struggled as he tried to work himself into shape at the start of the season, failing to score in six of his first games and finding himself outside the rotation – picking up 11 DNP-CD’s in a 15-game stretch from mid-November to late-December.
A pair of solid performances against Detroit and Chicago before the New Year put Zeller back on Brown’s radar, and he appeared in every game but one the rest of the way.
On January 28, the former Tar Heel got his first start of the season and didn’t waste the opportunity. With Anderson Varejao on the shelf with a left knee injury, Zeller turned in his best performance of the season, doubling up with 13 points and 10 rebounds in just 21 minutes of play. (That loss to New Orleans was also rookie Anthony Bennett’s coming-out party in 2013-14, with the No. 1 overall pick netting 15 points and eight boards off the bench.)
After two more starts, Zeller rejoined the second unit. But Varejao was sidelined with a sore back right before the All-Star Break and Zeller returned to the starting lineup. During that six-game stretch, Zeller improved on his previous best – tallying 18 points and 15 boards against Philly and notching 16 points and six boards the following night against Orlando. During those six starts, the Wine and Gold were 4-2.
That six-pack of games were the last Zeller would start last season, but the best was yet to come. He went 10-for-16 for 23 points against Houston in late March and finished the season with four straight double-digit scoring performances – including a 22-point effort on 9-for-11 shooting to close the campaign.
After struggling just to get healthy and into the rotation at the beginning of the season, Zeller closed out 2013-14 in style and hopefully gained some momentum and confidence heading into his third year as a pro.
Highlight: Zeller had some nice games scattered throughout the second half of the season, but he put things together consistently in the final two weeks – averaging 15.8 points and 7.5 boards in 23.8 minutes per game in Cleveland’s final four games of the year. The Cavs were a combined +70 with Zeller on the floor over his last seven games.
Lowlight: Take your pick of any game between November 16 and December 20 – a stretch in which Zeller could barely get on the floor after injuries derailed his Training Camp and hampered the start of the season. Zeller was relatively effective when he did play, but he combined for just over 30 total minutes of action during the drought.
Odds and Ends: Tyler Zeller is in select company at North Carolina, where he’s one of just 49 players in Tar Heel history to have his jersey honored in the rafters at the Dean E. Smith Center. To join that select group, a player must be the Most Valuable Player of a National Championship-winning team, an ACC Player of the Year, a first- or second-team All-America, an NCAA Tournament Most Outstanding Player or a member of a gold medal-winning Olympic team.
By the Numbers: .711 … Zeller's field goal percentage over the final four games of the season, going 27-for-38 from the floor in that span.
Looking Forward: Zeller’s development took a detour at the start of the season, but he showed the promise that made him the No. 17 overall pick in the final half of the season. He may or may not become an All-Star, but he could easily be a solid NBA big for the next decade or more. When the Cavaliers hire their next coach, he should be able to make use of Zeller – a skilled seven-footer who can shoot, rebound and run the floor like a forward.
Quotable: Zeller on the adjustments he made between his rookie and sophomore seasons with the Cavs …
“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. 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 and you’re going to shoot it every time, they’re going to close out on you and you’re going to struggle.”