ST. FRANCIS, Wis. — When Indiana University center Cody Zeller opted to pull his name out of contention for this year’s NBA Draft — a draft that should see his brother, Tyler Zeller, land in the lottery — Cody saw a perfect chance to take a jab at his sibling and longtime one-on-one opponent.
“He told me I owed him some money because I took my draft stock up one spot as he took his out,” Tyler said with a smile after working out for the Bucks on Thursday.
That kind of teasing comes with the territory when you’re a part of college basketball’s first family. The Zeller brothers — Tyler, Cody, and Luke — were all Indiana Mr. Basketballs and all had featured roles at their various schools. Tyler was last year’s ACC Player of the Year. Luke was a team captain at Notre Dame and currently plays for the Austin Toros of the NBADL. And Cody is likely to be the best player on a Hoosiers team that has Final Four aspirations next season. There’s even some speculation around the league that Cody could be in contention for the No. 1 pick in the 2013 draft, if he were to come out.
But this year, Tyler won’t have to worry about his brother sneaking up on him in the lottery. Zeller is a virtual lock to be one of the top picks in June 28’s draft and is one of the marquee names speculated about in relation to the Bucks’ first-round pick at No. 12.
If he’s picked that high, Zeller will likely be the first four-year college player selected. And when all is said and done, the former North Carolina center might wind up as the oldest player in the draft’s first round.
That’s a sign of the times in the NBA, as teams become obsessed with upside and potential at the top of the first round. And as a four-year college senior, Zeller’s upside has been his greatest question mark.
Zeller has clearly heard those concerns plenty of this time through the draft process. He’s been hearing them after each season after deciding to remain at North Carolina. Still, he’s not sure why his experience isn’t seen as a positive to some scouts.
“I think I still have a lot of upside left in me,” Zeller said. “Obviously, I went to college for four years, but I still think I have a long way to go. I think I can prove a lot more.”
First, he’ll have to prove that his seasoning in college makes him the better choice among the rest of the draft’s top big men, most of which have been valued because of their boom-or-bust potential. Illinois’ Meyers Leonard, Connecticut’s Andre Drummond, and Syracuse’s Fab Melo are this year’s poster boys for big-time potential.
But Zeller is used to competing with high-level talent like that, on and off the court. Since childhood, Zeller had some pretty good competition just down the hall in his home in Washington, Ind.
He said on Thursday that endless games of one-on-one-on-one in the family’s driveway or a local gym gave him the competitive fire that put him on the road to serious success in Chapel Hill. The trio of brothers still plays every now and again when the family is back together.
“It’s made me very competitive,” Zeller said of the brothers’ pick-up games. “Every time I go out I have to be able to play … and we compete against each other to make sure that we keep getting better and better and hopefully we all become as good as we can be.”
It’s the job of Bucks director of scouting Billy McKinney to evaluate upside in all of Milwaukee’s draft targets, and over the years, he’s seen Zeller more than pretty much any prospect in this draft. In terms of NBA potential, he didn’t sound too concerned about Zeller’s development, especially if he were to be a Buck when all is said and done.
“One of the great things about him is going to North Carolina and having stayed in school for four years,” McKinney said. “He’s got the experience of playing for a big-time program in big games. Just the life experience gives him a leg up on some of the guys.”
Some of the best experience might have come in those driveway pickup games, and with prototypical center size — Zeller measured in at 7-0, 250 pounds, according to a Bucks’ release — the seasoned vet of college basketball could be just what Milwaukee is looking for with the 12th pick.
Either way, Zeller is determined to prove that his pedigree and his experience will make him one of the best big men in the 2012 draft.
“Obviously being there for four years, I played a lot. I have a lot of college experience, and hopefully that translates to the NBA. We don’t know that yet.”