Former Tar Heel Tyler Zeller still adjusting his game to fit pros

jjones@charlotteobserver.comJanuary 4, 2013 

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Tyler Zeller of the Cleveland Cavaliers takes a shot over Jason Collins (98) of the Boston Celtics during the game on December 19, 2012 at TD Garden in Boston, Massachusetts.

JARED WICKERHAM — Getty Images

If you watch a Cleveland Cavaliers game, you’ll see Tyler Zeller running the floor and stroking mid-range jumpers just like he did at UNC-Chapel Hill, where he was a second-team All-American player.

But missing from the 7-footer’s game are a lot of the post moves that were staples of Zeller’s four-year career with the Tar Heels as he adjusts to life in the NBA his rookie season.

“I think a lot of things I learned in college I’m still finding ways to put it in the NBA game and get comfortable with my teammates and be able to use those,” Zeller told the Observer in a phone interview. “I haven’t even used most of my post game, which was a large part of what I did in college. I think I still have a lot of room to grow, and I think those four years will really start to show in the next year or two.”

Zeller’s patented baseline hook shot from 10-12 feet has been shelved and replaced with jumpers. With Zeller’s ability to shoot from outside as well as his 250-pound body, the Cavaliers opt to use Tristan Thompson near the basket.

Zeller has had to be a quick study this season. He averages 25.1 minutes per game, and in the past five games leading up to Friday’s contest against the Charlotte Bobcats he’s had to fill in for veteran starter Anderson Varejao, who injured his knee.

Zeller averages 8 points and 5.4 rebounds per game, and in his seven games as a starter he’s posted 12.2 points and 6.8 rebounds per game. He credits Varejao for some of his early-season development.

“It’s incredible that somebody that isn’t the most athletic, doesn’t jump the highest in the world, is still averaging 14 (points) and 14 (rebounds) in every game,” Zeller said. “It’s incredible what position can do for you and how, if you have a knack for being in the right place at the right time, you can create a lot of opportunities for yourself.”

Just four games into the season as Varejao’s backup, Zeller caught a DeAndre Jordan elbow to the face against the Los Angeles Clippers. He cracked his left orbital bone and had concussion-like symptoms.

It was Zeller’s first major injury since having a stress fracture in his foot during his sophomore year at UNC. But he was pleased when doctors told him he could play as long as he wore a clear, protective mask.

Until Dec. 19, Zeller wore the mask, which limited his peripheral vision. The injury to his cheekbone also impaired his vision when he looked down. He said the mask was a hindrance to a degree, but he was happy he was still able to play.

The first game without the mask, Zeller scored a career-high 20 points against the Boston Celtics and future Hall of Fame power forward Kevin Garnett. During that game and on the same play, a ball hit him in the face and an opponent’s hand hit his cheek, but he didn’t suffer any setbacks.

“It was kind of a relieving feeling knowing that I didn’t have to protect it and I didn’t have to worry about it,” Zeller said. “It was one of those things where it felt just like every other time I had been hit, so it was nice to be able to get rid of the mask and know that I don’t need it anymore.”

Perhaps one of the biggest adjustments Zeller has had to make in his jump from college to the pros has been his team’s record.

Zeller won a national championship and appeared in three Elite Eights as a Tar Heel. Cleveland, on the other hand, is 7-26 this year.

The Cavaliers have been in close games, losing their past three matches by an average of four points per contest. But those close games are what Zeller uses as fuel to get better during his rookie campaign.

“It’s very trying. It definitely shows you what other teams go through that I’ve never been through before,” Zeller said. “It is very difficult putting that much into a game and being so close and not winning. But it does drive me, and it makes me want to get back to that winning record.”

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