A year ago at this time, I said that the biggest risk in drafting Tyler Zeller was that in a few years, he would be known as "the crappy Zeller". Now, a year on, the risk appears to have substantially diminished - Cody Zeller is no longer a hot commodity, falling in draft boards rapidly. Let's take a look at why that happened.
Bio: Cody Zeller is the youngest brother of the most illustrious group of siblings in Indiana basketball in the past decade. Cody, like this brothers, Luke and Tyler, was Mr. Basketball in Indiana. In high school, Luke was valedictorian, Tyler third in his class, and Cody third. Luke went to Notre Dame, Tyler to North Carolina, but Tom Crean was finally able to nab one of the Zeller brothers for the Hoosiers, making him the 26th Indiana High School Mr. Basketball to go to Indiana.
Offense: Zeller had a stellar season offensively his freshman year with a PER above 31 and an effective field goal percentage of 62%. He could have easily gone in the top-10 in a very good draft last year, but chose to stay at Indiana for another year. However, he failed to improve statistically in his sophomore campaign, seeing his PER drop a bit, his turnover rate go from 14% to 16%, and his shooting take a relative nose dive down to 56%. We're clearly splitting hairs here - his sophomore season was clearly impressive, but the lack of improvement has clearly spooked NBA talent evaluators who are now concerned that he's hit his ceiling.
Zeller's best offensive skill is almost certainly his ability to get to the foul line. His FTA/FGA went from a stellar 0.67 in his freshman year to an other-worldly 0.73 last season. He's able to get to the line in 25.7% of his possessions, which, according to DraftExpress, is a much higher rate than any other high-usage power forward in his class. And once he gets to the line, he's pretty good, making 75% of his free throws.
He is one of the best pick-and-roll forwards in college basketball - he gets to screens quickly, slips out effectively, and is athletic and has great hands when rolling to the basket. Zeller shows really nice awareness of where passing lanes are when he's rolling - he often spends an extra half second or two walling off the pick defender to give the ball-handler a passing lane to hit him as he's rolling to the basket. He can also deploy an arsenal of spin moves once the ball is in his hands to get to the rim. Since he scored 1.29 points per pick and roll possession, that's an area where Zeller could really shine in the NBA.
He has shown he has the skills to consistently beat post defenders in college with his nice array of post moves and his surprisingly good dribbling ability. For his size, he moves extremely well with the ball in his hand. He made 60.9% of his shots while finishing at the rim last year, slightly above average for the power forwards in this year's class. Where he excels in finishing, however, is in transition - he gets into transition more often than any other power forward in this year's class, and when he's running the floor, he makes 80% of his field goal attempts.
Considering his athleticism, he would be a huge asset for an NBA offense if he could stretch the floor with his shooting. But alas, he failed to do so at Indiana - he only shot 24 jumpers in 36 games, often passing up open looks and looking uncomfortable when he does take a jumper. It's hard not to think he could develop a good 20-foot jumper and turn into a solid pick and pop player, since he does have good shooting form and makes 75% of his free throws.
Defense: Just like on offense, Zeller's defensive strengths stem from his athleticism and high level of basketball knowledge. He is an extremely capable pick and roll defender, especially on hedges, where he often is extremely aggressive to great effect, blitzing the ball-handler and forcing him to give up the basketball. After these aggressive hedges, he's usually able to recover well. Zeller also understands rotations well, seeing who he should guard and leaving his man appropriately for help-side defense. Though he's not a great shot-blocker, he does a good job of getting in position and stopping dribble penetration.
His weaknesses, however, stem from his lack of bulk. He stands an impressive 6'11", but he has a wingspan just shy of that, which limits his shot-blocking ability. In his freshman year, he suffered due to his physical weakness, but didn't come back that much stronger in his sophomore season. He was easily pushed around by stronger opponents, ceding deep position near the basket and unable to use his lower body to defend the post.
Zeller didn't get much chance to defend around the perimeter against college bigs, but what he was able to do wasn't all that promising. He tends to get caught flat-footed and allow dribble penetration, even against players that are no threat to shoot. Sagging off several feet doesn't seem to help - he allowed an array of running jumpers that were relatively open. This is an area where you could expect Zeller to improve, however - considering how athletic he is and his ability to hedge on screens, you would think that his lateral quickness would shine through when he gets practice against perimeter bigs in the NBA.
Zeller is consistently dogged by his poor rebounding, even though he improved his rebound rate by nearly 20 points this year. He tends to get in good position, often times focusing on blocking out when he could be working to protect the rim. His lack of strength and less than ideal wingspan come into play once again - he's often out-muscled for rebounds, and his short arms aren't ideal for snagging boards. This would be a clear area of weakness for Zeller in the NBA game, though I doubt he'd be any worse at defensive rebounding than Robin Lopez.
Overall: Cody Zeller's failure to improve in his sophomore year significantly reduced his projected ceiling, but he's still a versatile offensive player and an athletic defender with a high motor. Though he likely won't ever be a go-to player in the NBA, he will likely be a very efficient scorer for a long time, especially if he can develop a dependable jump shot. Considering how much he's slid in draft projections, he might be a real steal in the low teens.