Editor’s note: This is the 11th in a series examining top prospects in the NBA Draft. Profiles are based on conversations with NBA general managers and scouts.
When you’re talking about college basketball, Tyler Zeller may have been the nation’s most underrated player.
That’s tough to do when you stand 7-foot-0 and win ACC Player of the Year honors. But such is life when you spend your career playing for a North Carolina program stacked with big names and flashy teammates.
No matter, NBA scouts know all about Zeller – which is why he’s a likely lottery pick.
On top of possessing the size of a true NBA center, Zeller runs the floor, blocks shots and finishes near the rim with the best of them. He’s athletic enough, strong enough, and experienced enough. In fact, Zeller may be the lone senior selected among the top 15 or even 20 picks.
“One thing I really like about him is he improved from his junior to senior seasons,” said one scout. “It makes you think he’s willing to put in the work and that he hasn’t yet hit his ceiling.”
The scout also called Zeller “the fastest big man in terms of running the floor” entering the draft, as well as someone “with a great motor.”
Another compared him to Denver big man Chris Andersen.
“(Zeller) can alter shots, get up and down the court, and his hands are soft enough that if you pass to him on the break, he’ll take the ball and finish,” the scout added. “In a lot of years, he’d be a top eight pick.”
Instead, Zeller is more likely to be draft somewhere in the 12-15 range. With all the high praise, it’s easy to wonder why.
“Well, for one, this is a pretty deep draft with a lot of players who have high expectations,” said a Western Conference GM. “Also, I don’t think anyone really expects (Zeller) to change the course of your franchise. Most expect him to be a unique and talented center that could play an important role, though.”
Perhaps the biggest knock against Zeller is his half-court game. It’s not viewed as bad, but it’s not considered anything special, either.
According to the scouting website DraftExpress.com, Zeller needs “to continue to refine his post game, working on his footwork and mixing up his repertoire a bit, but he did show flashes of some counter moves and looks to have a good touch finishing with either hand around the rim.
Nor is Zeller looked at as an accomplished passer.
“He’ll also need to focus more on feeling defenders collapsing on him and finding open shooters, as his passing out of the post is still lacking at this stage, only generating an assist on just 7 percent of his used possessions,” wrote DraftExpress.com.
Still, Zeller could be a bit of a difference-maker in the NBA, and right away, if drafted by the right team.
“It’s all going to be about the right fit for him,” the GM said. “If he lands on a team that gives him an opportunity, I expect him to make some contributions. In his case, they’ll probably go unnoticed, but they’ll definitely be there.”
Sounds like the Zeller who spent four years at North Carolina.