At some point Wednesday night, when Golden State and Cleveland resume the process of determining the world’s best basketball team, LeBron James and Draymond Green will find themselves playing center – or, at least, what’s become of the position.
In a seven-game playoff series, coaches become progressively more daring, throwing orthodoxy to the wind. Over the course of 82 games, with four or five different opponents on every week’s docket, convention holds more often than not. But, no, it’s not your father’s NBA any more, even during the regular season.
Which is why big men who can shoot from areas outside the paint are more coveted than ever. A decade ago, there was no such term as “stretch four.” Now everybody has one – or two or three. The next phase, already employed by nearly half of the NBA’s 30 teams, is a “stretch five” – centers who can step out to the 3-point line and give their teams five face-up perimeter scoring threats.
So Stephen Zimmerman is going to get a long look from pretty much every team outside the lottery on down in 16 days when the NBA draft is held. A five-star recruit out of Las Vegas who stayed home to play for UNLV, Zimmerman is projected to go late in the first or early in the second round. He worked out for the Pistons last week – and interviewed with them at the NBA draft combine last month in Chicago – so there is obvious interest in him.
Zimmerman’s profile would read a lot like that of Donatas Motiejunas, the 7-footer the Pistons traded for in February only to decide to rescind the deal after finding too much risk in the condition of Motiejunas’ back. He’s a 7-footer – Zimmerman, only 19, meausured 6-foot-11¾ at the combine – with a fine shooting touch, if not yet NBA 3-point range. He’s got the frame to carry more than his current 234 pounds and, while not an explosive athlete, Zimmerman appears to have above-average mobility that could improve as he matures and gains strength.
If the Pistons determine Zimmerman can develop into a player that could not only back up Andre Drummond in lineups that would give them a stretch five but also play alongside him, he’d be worthy of consideration with the 18th pick. If they think he’s a tweener – not yet mobile enough to defend stretch fours, not yet physical enough to handle NBA centers – then maybe they’re gauging whether he’d be a steal at 49 if he tumbles a few spots on draft night.
Neither scenario is unrealistic. As in most draft years, once you get past the top 20 or so players, the difference in talent narrows. After that, it’s about finding someone with one or two NBA-caliber skills and determining the best fits.
Zimmerman isn’t sure exactly how teams view him.
“I have no clue where they’re looking at me,” he said after his Pistons workout, “but I do like to look at that as a strength, to be able to play and guard the four and the five.”
Zimmerman, the No. 15 rated recruit in the high school class of 2015 according to Rivals.com, averaged 10.5 points and 8.7 rebounds as a UNLV freshman in 26 minutes a game. He shot 30 percent from the 3-point line but, at minimum, looks like he’ll be a pick-and-pop scoring threat capable of matching up with stretch fives like Boston’s Kelly Olynyk, Charlotte’s Spencer Hawes or Motiejunas. With more teams looking to find similar players, Zimmerman is hopeful he becomes one of the draft’s risers through strong workouts over the next few weeks.
“I think that’s something I could really fit into and help teams win that way,” he said.
Zimmerman’s experience playing with high-profile AAU teams and for a traditionally loaded prep power, Bishop Gorman High in Las Vegas, means he’s accustomed to playing with other talented big men, too. He played next to Cal frosh Ivan Raab, who surprised nearly everyone by deciding to return to college despite being projected as a lottery pick, on his AAU team and alongside another five-star big man, Duke’s Chase Jeter, at Bishop Gorman. He thinks that argues for his fit with Drummond.
“Every team I was on had a great big,” he said. “I’ve been playing with great bigs my whole life and I feel like I can make them better just as much as they make me better.”
Zimmerman didn’t have the dominant freshman season some expected, but it didn’t help that the coach who recruited him, Dave Rice, was fired in January after the Runnin’ Rebels lost their first three conference games. But Rice’s ouster didn’t influence Zimmerman’s decision to leave for the NBA early, he said.
“At the beginning of the year, (UNLV coaches) said based on my work ethic and my skill level, if I didn’t leave after the first year they felt like they did their job wrong,” he said. “So I think it was set from the beginning to progress and be able to play at this level.”
The Pistons, clearly, are kicking the tires on Zimmerman. He might be a tweener in more ways than one – stuck between positions and also between Pistons draft picks. They probably can’t wait to 49 to get Zimmerman, who if he hits his mark would be an ideal addition to a roster that lacks a bigger power forward. That begs the question: Do the Pistons see enough in Stephen Zimmerman to pick him at 18? We’ll know soon enough.