Detroit Pistons #DraftDreams: Tyler Zeller

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  • Measurables: 7-foot-0, 250 pounds, senior center from North Carolina
  • Key Stats: 16.3 points, 9.3 rebounds, 1.4 blocks per game, 54 percent shooting
  • Projected: Late lottery
  • Hickory High Similarity Score

Why I like this guy

This season, Tyler Zeller became the 13th North Carolina player to win the ACC Player of the Year award. Among those 13: the greatest player in the history of mankind (Michael Jordan), a Hall of Famer (Billy Cunningham), an All-Star (Antawn Jamison), a PG with the makings of a future All-Star (Ty Lawson) and a handful of useful players (Tyler Hansbrough, Phil Ford, Larry Miller and Mitch Kupchak). In short, as a standout four-year player at UNC, Zeller comes with a pedigree that suggests he’ll at the very least carve out a serviceable NBA career for himself.

In four years at North Carolina, his scoring, rebounding, assists, steals and blocks per-game averages improved each season, as did his field goal percentage. His free throw percentage dipped as a sophomore, but was up to 80 percent as a senior. He won the Mr. Basketball award as a high school basketball player in the state of Indiana, one of the country’s biggest basketball hotbeds. Zeller might have slightly less upside than the younger bigs at the top of the lottery, but his improvement and work ethic are good predictors that he’s capable of having a very good, steady NBA career.

Pros for the Pistons

Listen to any Piston fan talk about the needs of this team for more than a minute, and they’ll quickly tell you: a shot-blocking, defensive-minded big man. Basically, they’ll describe Anthony Davis. Unfortunately, there’s only one Anthony Davis in this draft and the only way to get him is to win the lottery. Since a miserable start to the season, the Pistons have slowly figured out a few things on the court and are not quite as dreadful as they were early on. There’s a shot they could be picking in a familiar spot this year: middle of the lottery. Players with the skillset Davis possesses are extremely rare, so if they don’t get him, forget about the illusion that they can essentially find a poor man’s Anthony Davis somewhere else in the draft. That player doesn’t exist — the other lottery bigs all have much different attributes and weaknesses.

Zeller would be an intriguing fit on the Pistons offensively. Although he’s not going to be confused with Marcus Camby, he can block some shots. He’s probably a tad more athletic than Greg Monroe and he probably has a more advanced back-to-the-basket game than Monroe did coming out of Georgetown, although he, like Monroe, is also not a traditional, dump-it-inside-and-get-out-of-his-way type of big man either. Zeller’s greatest attribute is his speed. He’s one of the best big men in the country at running the floor and finishing around the basket. His fit next to Monroe would work fine, but that’s not what intrigues me. What intrigues me about Zeller is his fit with the Pistons’ starting guards.

Rodney Stuckey and Brandon Knight both have weaknesses as passers, but both are also blurs when it comes to pushing the ball up the court in transition. Both pass the ball better when the defense is scrambling and on its heels. Having a player like Zeller who can run with them, who has great hands and who finishes strong would be a nice target for those two. Monroe runs the floor well as does Jonas Jerebko, so adding Zeller to that trio could give the Pistons a pretty fun up-tempo unit to watch.

Zeller is also a pretty good offensive rebounder, as are Jerebko and Monroe. With perimeter players who are streaky and no strangers to off shooting nights, adding another player who can go get offensive rebounds wouldn’t be a bad thing.

Offensively, as Carolina’s best interior option, Zeller is used to getting a lot of attention from a defense, often facing double-teams. Playing next to an established offensive player like Monroe could potentially free Zeller up offensively as he adjusts to the NBA.

Zeller has also worked hard to add bulk to his frame at UNC. He got pushed around quite a bit his first couple years in college, but now Zeller is up around the 250 mark. He still needs to get stronger, but he’s clearly willing to work on his body and do that.

Most importantly, he’s an active, willing and smart defensive player, something the Pistons desperately need up front.

Cons for the Pistons

Although playing alongside a good rebounder in John Henson impacts this some, Zeller’s defensive rebound rate isn’t as strong as a lot of the other big men potentially available in the top of the draft. It’s not a huge issue for the Pistons since Monroe is a double-digit rebounder, but it would be nice to add a player to the frontcourt mix who will take some of that pressure off of Monroe.

Zeller also might be better suited to play power forward in the NBA. He’s gotten stronger in college, but he’s still probably not strong enough by NBA post player standards. Monroe’s biggest weakness is defense and although Zeller is a capable defender, he also might not be physically able to guard other teams’ best big men, so Monroe would likely still have those responsibilities. Freeing Monroe up from tough defensive assignments could help him stay fresher on offense. Zeller might be able to do that down the road, but probably not off the bat as a rookie.

What others are saying

Chad Ford:

We’ve made so much of Indiana’s Cody Zeller this season that his brother, North Carolina’s Tyler Zeller, has been flying under the radar. After a slow start, Tyler has really come on of late and has firmly planted himself back in the discussion as a late lottery pick. Zeller’s ability to run the floor combined with his soft touch around the basket is drawing some comparisons to a poor man’s Pau Gasol.


As we’ve mentioned before, Zeller has the physical tools to stand out at the college level, as there aren’t many players with his combination of size, mobility, and skill level. While not a top-shelf athlete, he runs the floor well and is able to elevate to finish and compete on the glass. His lack of physical strength is still his biggest weakness from a physical standpoint and area where he should really focus.

Zeller has the prototypical height, length, run-jump athleticism, and touch of a good C prospect … He also has developing skills offensively as a post and face-up shooter … He will be a good fit in a fast-paced offense … Zeller needs more strength and to play tougher, right now he can be bullied on both ends by physical play in half-court situations

NBA Draft Blog:

Zeller is one of the best rebounders in the country.  His fundamentals are solid – blocking out, positioning, going after the ball fully extended and securing it.  Zeller is a solid shot-blocker with good timing and the ability to avoid fouling while going after the shot.


Zeller proved plenty last March, averaging 26 points and 9 rebounds in Carolina’s four NCAA Tournament games. His play has been ACC POY-caliber over the past few games (this season).

What is the best thing Tyler Zeller does for his team?

Danny Nowell (follow him on Twitter) is a UNC fan and contributor to ESPN TrueHoop Network blogs HoopSpeak and Magic Basketball:

“Tyler provides two very real skills that I think will translate well to the NBA. He is extraordinarily fast for his size, and this allows him to compete on the defensive glass and often still be the first big man down the court on offense–he’s made a living receiving Kendall Marshall’s lead-out passes over his shoulder like a wide receiver. I also think that he has not missed a jump hook over his left shoulder since he was nine. His intangibles are stellar; he’s been an academic All-American for years, and I don’t know how many ACC POYs that’s true of. Heels fans have come to count on Zeller making up for his lack of lower body strength and elite athleticism with how hard he competes, and he’s put the team on his back pretty often this season.”



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