Lean year for Cavs means tough lesson for UNC star Zeller

acarter@newsobserver.comApril 21, 2013 

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Cleveland Cavaliers' Tyler Zeller (40) gets a dunk against the Charlotte Bobcats in the first half of their game at Time Warner Cable Arena on April 17, 2013.

DAVID T. FOSTER III — dtfoster@charlotteobserver.com Buy Photo

— About one year earlier Tyler Zeller had been preparing for the NBA draft, his senior season at North Carolina less than a month old. Now he walked into Time Warner Cable Arena in Charlotte for his final pregame shoot-around before the final game of his rookie season in the NBA.

Zeller moved a bit slowly. He felt the weight of 76 games on his shoulders, in his knees.

“You don’t feel fresh,” Zeller, the Cleveland Cavaliers center, said before their 105-98 season-ending loss against the Charlotte Bobcats. “I don’t think at this point in time (anyone does). The grind of the NBA season, it wears you down.”

During the final two years of his college career at UNC, Zeller thrived in the role of a star. The Tar Heels’ offense worked inside first, to Zeller, and he often took advantage of all those passes from Kendall Marshall, and from the space created by teammates Harrison Barnes and John Henson.

In the NBA, though, Zeller, who earned ACC Player of the Year honors during his senior season, has been forced to start over. The Dallas Mavericks selected him with the 17th pick in the NBA draft, then traded him to the Cavaliers. The losses added up quickly. It was a long season, and not just because of all the defeats.

“It’s been a roller coaster,” said Zeller, who started the final 22 games of the season. “You play well for a while, you play bad for a while. It kind of depends on who you’re playing. It’s been a learning experience – I’ve learned a lot. But it’s been kind of up and down. Been rough times, good times.”

During his four seasons at UNC, Zeller experienced 35 losses – 17 of them coming during the 2009-10 season. The Cavaliers needed less than three and a half months to lose 35 games this season, and then lost their 36th game on Feb. 13.

When Cleveland coach Byron Scott met with reporters before his team’s finale last week against the Bobcats, he was asked what word best described the Cavaliers’ season. He took a second to think about it and then said, “Frustrating.”

The Cavaliers fired him the next day, after their 24-58 season came to a miserable end with a loss against the Bobcats. On his final day on the job, though, Scott praised Zeller, saying “we still see some great things coming from him.”

“With him we knew it would be 100 miles an hour – it was going to take him some time for it to slow down,” Scott said. “And I think it gradually slowed down for him throughout the season. But he still has a long ways to go.”

In the NBA, Zeller said he has heard what followed him around college for four years: that he’s too light, and too easily pushed around on the interior.

He proved otherwise during his senior season at UNC, but his time in the NBA has included its share of humbling moments. Zeller said Dwight Howard, the Los Angeles Lakers center, was the most difficult player he faced this season.

“You’re playing against the best of the best, and you don’t have the nights that you play Elon or anybody like that,” Zeller said. “You don’t get to play against the 6-6 guys anymore. You’re going up against grown men every night. So it’s definitely kind of a shock for you a little bit.”

It might have been more of a shock had he decided to leave school early. Zeller considered entering the NBA draft after he averaged 15.7 points and 7.2 rebounds for the Tar Heels during his junior season.

But, Zeller said, “I just really wanted to try to come back and enjoy my senior year, and try to win a national championship. We came up a little short.”

The Tar Heels were perhaps a broken wrist away from reaching the Final Four in 2012. Marshall, who rewrote UNC’s records for assists, suffered that injury during UNC’s round of 32 victory against Creighton. It was the final time he played for UNC.

Three months later, Zeller, Barnes, Henson and Marshall all were selected among the top 17 picks in the NBA draft. Keeping in touch has been difficult, Zeller said, but he has kept up with what his former teammates have done. Barnes started all season for the Golden State Warriors, who are now in the playoffs, and Henson came on strong at the end of the season for the Milwaukee Bucks while Marshall tried to gain traction with the Phoenix Suns.

And then there’s Zeller, who averaged 7.9 points and 5.7 rebounds per game during his rookie season. Scott, the Cavaliers’ former coach, won’t be around to see Zeller’s development but Scott said he was confident Zeller would become stronger, better and more equipped to play against “grown men,” as Zeller put it.

“He’s willing to work his butt off to do it,” Scott said. “So that’s not an issue.”

At the end of a long season, though, Zeller was looking forward to a bit of a reprieve. He had some time off ahead, and said he’d work to help his younger brother, Cody, prepare for the NBA draft. Then it’d be back to work.

Carter: 919-829-8944 Twitter: @_andrewcarter

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