Coming into his senior season, Tyler Zeller
was a part of a North Carolina team that had high preseason expectations of winning a national title, thanks an extremely talented roster full of top-shelf NBA prospects. The Tar heels ended up earning a number one seed in the NCAA tournament but lost last weekend in the Elite Eight to Kansas, ending Zeller's collegiate career.
After a successful junior year, Zeller continued to make strides as a senior, establishing himself as perhaps the Tar Heels most consistent player and earning ACC Player of the Year honors. While he was considered a likely mid to late first round pick in the 2012 NBA Draft coming into this season, Zeller's impressive senior campaign helped elevate his draft stock to the point that he now has a strong chance of being picked in the lottery or perhaps even the top ten.
His intrigue from NBA standpoint starts with his physical profile, as he's a solid run and jump athlete for a 7-footer, showing great speed running the court, as well as the ability to finish above the rim. Somewhat upright in his stance and not overly fluid, his frame could still use some extra bulk, but he's made progress in that area since coming to North Carolina, and he should continue to add strength as he puts in the work in the weight room.
Zeller combines his outstanding running ability with a nice set of hands and a good motor for a player his size, both of which help him as a finisher sprinting the floor. He's able to beat most any big men down the court and catch the ball running full speed, where he's then shown the ability to quickly gather himself and elevate for a dunk, resulting in him converting on an excellent 79% of his field goal attempts in transition this season.
In the half-court, Zeller does much of his damage in the post, where he looked to be more assertive and confident as a senior, fighting to establish position and calling for the ball. His bread and butter is still his right-handed jump hook turning to his left shoulder, which he executes effectively from either block and can even shoot from a bit further out, depending on how deep he catches the ball.
He'll need 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 good touch finishing with either hand around the rim. 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% of his used possessions.
Due to the way he was utilized offensively at North Carolina, Zeller didn't get to show much in terms of his shooting ability, attempting less than one jumper per game in his senior season. He connected on half of those attempts, albeit in a very limited sample size, and looks like he should become a reliable shooter out to about eighteen feet or so in time. He shot an excellent 81% from the free throw line this season, has solid mechanics, and a quick release, which all bode well for his potential to space the floor and pick-and-pop as he gets more comfortable with his jumper.
Defensively, Zeller may lack some girth to defend bigger NBA centers and isn't the most imposing rim-protector (his 2 blocks per-40 minutes ranks 11th of the 15 centers in our top 100 rankings), but he's a very cerebral defender who understands positioning, both defending the ball and in help situations, as he does an excellent job drawing charges. He'll likely never be considered a game-changing defender at the center position, but his smarts and instincts should enable him to fit into a defensive scheme, where he has the potential to excel defending ball screens and making the proper rotations.
Perhaps the area we've noticed the most improvement in Zeller over the past year has been with his toughness and willingness to embrace contact in the paint. We noted before that he seemed to be a bit soft at times and was muscled around on occasion, but he showed more of a mean streak this year on both ends of the floor. After being a below average rebounder for three seasons, Zeller improved dramatically as a senior, showing great activity on the glass on both ends of the floor and grabbing 13.6 rebounds per-40, which was the highest of all centers in our top 100.
Overall, Zeller had a very impressive senior season at North Carolina, solidifying his strengths and shoring up some of his weaknesses. He improved each year since arriving as a freshman and also earned Academic All-American of the Year honors this season, further exemplifying his strong off-court intangibles.
The fact that he's already 22 years and doesn't have elite length or athleticism likely limits his upside in the eyes of NBA decision makers, but 7-footers who can rebound, run the floor, and score in the post are always highly coveted by NBA teams, and Zeller looks to have the potential to make a contribution early in his career if he's drafted by the right team and given the opportunity.