Zeller’s biggest strength is his combination of size and athleticism. Despite being seven feet tall, he runs the floor with the grace and speed of a guard. Most NBA players with Zeller’s height are slow and don’t get out in the transition very well, but Zeller decisively breaks that mold. This season at Indiana, he consistently got himself easy buckets by beating opponents down the floor.
Outside of his size and speed, Zeller’s most notable strength is his athleticism. Earlier this month, he posted the one of the highest marks at the NBA Draft Combine for standing vertical leap (no running start.) His mark impressed scouts because as a big man who plays in the paint, Zeller does not have the option to take steps before elevating. The fact that he can get up that high from a stance will aid him as a rebounder and scorer.
Zeller’s final strength is his scoring ability. He can put the ball in the bucket in a variety of ways from any angle around the hoop. Despite his age, he already has a polished post game and a variety of back-to-the-basket moves. He also uses his agility to his advantage in the paint, blowing past defenders off the dribble.
Though he’s not nearly as skinny as Nerlens Noel, Zeller is still severely lacking in the weight department. At 7’0” and only 230 pounds, I shudder to think what might happen if he were forced to guard an NBA big man like Zach Randolph. He will have to add a good deal of man strength if he hopes to bang down low at the next level.
Despite his excellent vertical leap, Zeller gets his shot blocked more that you might expect. This is partly due to his lack of strength, but also due to his short reach (8’10”). Getting a shot off in inside is as much about technique and timing as it is size and strength in the NBA. Zeller will have to develop that part of his game.
In addition to a shorter reach, Zeller also has relatively small hands. This leads to a large number of turnovers. Passes in the NBA come quicker than they do in college. Zeller will have to make adjustments there.
Perhaps the biggest question mark around Zeller is his rebounding ability. Though his totals improved significantly in his sophomore year, he is still not an elite rebounder. That will obviously be one of the areas the team which drafts him will expect Zeller to contribute, but he may not be able to board effectively in the NBA. Consider Nikola Vucevic, a similar draft prospect from a few seasons ago. Vucevic averaged 10.3 rebounds per game in is final college season. That production translated to the NBA. Zeller only averages 8.1 rebounds per game and does not have Vucevic’s girth. Te likelihood of Zeller’s rebound production increasing to double-digits in the NBA seems very small.
At this point, it doesn’t seem like Zeller’s offensive game, which is predicated on interior speed and post ups, will translate to the NBA. That is why he has spent this pre-draft period trying to show NBA scouts that he can transition from center to power forward. Which brings us to…
How high or low Zeller goes in the draft will have a lot to do with how likely scouts believe he is to make a successful transition to power forward. At this point in his career, Zeller has a good handle for a seven-footer, but his dribbling ability is not good enough to be a perimeter-oriented stretch-4 in the NBA. Likewise, Zeller didn’t do much jump shooting in his two years at Indiana. He does have excellent form and is a good free throw shooter, so the potential is there. But are NBA teams going to spend a Top-10 pick on that potential? That remains to be seen. The good news for Zeller is that he has the attributes (size, speed, IQ) that can’t be taught, so from that perspective, the hardest part of developing him into a power forward has already been done.
How would he fit with the Suns?
The place Zeller would fit in best is as a pick and roll partner for. His speed and agility in the paint would make him a lethal scorer as a roll man. His and Dragic’s combined speed would make them a nightmare to defend as tandem for just about every team save Memphis. Defensively, he wouldn’t really improve the Suns at all. He isn’t an outstanding shot blocker or post defender. He does work incredibly hard, but he is far from a defensive anchor.
Zeller’s lack of size and presence ultimately make him not a great option for the Suns. While he does have offensive talent, there’s no guarantee that it will translate to the NBA. Not to mention that taking him at #5 would be a massive reach. To put themselves in a position to draft Zeller, the Suns might have to package an asset or two for a late round lottery pick, like Dallas’ #13 selection.
And 1 … A second-rounder to consider
One player the Suns could take a chance on in the second round is Colorado’s Andre Roberson. Currently rated #47 in Chad Ford’s Top 100, Roberson is an incredibly athletic rebounder who reminds me in some ways of Kenneth Faried. Despite being listed at only 6’7”, Roberson was the second-leading rebounder in college basketball this season (11.3 per game.) He doesn’t have a polished offensive game by any means, but he is dangerous around the hoop and above the rim. The Suns could use an athletic big man to run the floor and pull down boards in an up-tempo system, and Roberson could definitely be that guy. Complete players aren’t normally found in the second round, but in Roberson, the Suns could get a guy with one elite skill (rebounding) which is a big need for this team.