Monday, it seems, is the day for talking about Cody Zeller, after his subpar performance in Indiana’s two wins last week.
There is no consensus opinion. Jeff Goodman of CBS Sports wonders how much better Indiana might beif Zeller adds a little bit more consistent dominance to a formula that’s working for Indiana right now. Rob Dauster of NBC Sports wonders if we’re defining Zeller’s dominance the right wayat all (at least I think that’s what he means).
Seemingly the one assertion that the majority seems able to agree with is this — we have yet to see the best of Zeller as a sophomore.
But is that true? Have we not seen the best of sophomore year Cody Zeller?
He was preseason Big Ten Player of the Year and an All-American, and he was the poster child for the preseason No. 1 team in the country, so expectations were bound to be sky high. And so far no, he has not lived up to them. But which is faulty in this debate: Zeller, or the expectations?
First, let’s clear up a few things statistically. Primarily, Zeller has improved in almost every measure from last season to this one.
He is averaging more points per game and more rebounds per game, and his block numbers have ticked up slightly (1.2 bpg to 1.4 bpg), and he’s fouling less while playing basically the same number of minutes each night.
Per KenPom.com, he’s committing fewer fouls per 40 minutes while drawing more, his free-throw rate is improved considerably, both his offensive and defensive rebounding percentages are noticeably higher and his block percentage is up as well.
Though his shooting and efficiency numbers are down, Zeller has become more productive by nearly every measure as a rebounder and defender as a sophomore.
His turnover percentage is slightly higher (up 0.6 percent), but the great concern is over his offensive efficiency. Though Zeller is using a slightly higher percentage of Indiana’s offensive possessions, KenPom has his effective field goal percentage and offensive rating down.
His traditional field goal percentage is down as well, though his scoring is up, thanks in part to the fact that, at his current pace and assuming Indiana plays the same number of games it did last year (36), he will make 28 more free throws.
To make a long story shorter: Zeller’s offensive efficiency is noticeably down, but basically every other statistical measure suggests he has improved. He is a better rebounder this year, a better shot blocker this year and a better, more efficient defender.
None of this, of course, adequately answers the question of whether we are seeing Zeller at his best. This week, the answer to that is no, of course not.
For the first time in his college career, Zeller went without a field goal in a game, after he finished 0-of-4 against Penn State. And his 2-of-7 performance against Michigan State, with nine points and seven rebounds, is below his standard as well, although as Dauster points out, he made plays when they mattered, including an important block late, a driving layup to essentially seal the game and a drawn charge that ended any hope of a Michigan State comeback.
It’s probably fair to suggest that Zeller needs to be better finishing through contact, and perhaps just playing through it in general. Posed with the challenge of producing through Derrick Nix on Sunday, Zeller struggled to establish good post position, and when he did establish it, he too often gave it up as soon as he caught the ball.
But it’s also entirely fair to point out that, for all of his skill, Zeller isn’t blessed with the physical tools to beat Derrick Nix in the majority of their individual battles. He’s listed at 240 pounds right now, compared to Nix’s 270 pounds. Jared Sullinger was 280 when he left Ohio State last season, and 260 out of high school.
Part of Zeller’s eventual development will likely include expanding his range, but within Indiana’s hyperefficient offense and surrounded by shot makers and talented on-ball slashers, Zeller shooting jumper after jumper doesn’t make much sense.
At 240 pounds, Zeller is at a physical disadvantage when facing the likes of Derrick Nix (25), but he probably can improve finishing around the rim, particularly through contact. That might tick up his scoring numbers without hurting Indiana's overall offensive efficiency.
Indiana also isn’t blessed with a ton of post depth right now, so the Hoosiers don’t have many ways to loosen defenses up when they compact on Zeller, or pull bigger centers out from around the basket. His best looks at the rim usually still come in transition.
But that, while being admittedly hard to quantify, still doesn’t answer the question of whether Zeller should or can be considerably better this season.
The problem with Zeller is that he is so impactful as a big man because he is inherently unselfish. To put a finer point on it, because he recognizes that his team’s offense is built intrinsically upon his unselfishness, and more broadly on crisp, teamwide ball movement. Indiana is worse off when the offense is going to Zeller, rather than through him, particularly in the halfcourt.
Consider the Wisconsin game, when Indiana scored 31 first-half points but faded badly after halftime, particularly on offense. Zeller spent the first 20 points attacking at will, scoring 18 points on a perfect 8-of-8 from the floor. But the offense that night moved to Zeller, and the ball too often stopped in his hands, so when Wisconsin adjusted in the second half, Zeller could muster just one made field goal and five points, but more importantly, the offense around him had collapsed.
Tom Crean said later that Indiana hadn’t moved the ball nearly well enough in the game to get good looks for its offense, and he’s spent most of the past season and a half putting Zeller at the heart of his team’s ball movement.
While Zeller finished that game with 23 points, Indiana has a team shot 28.2 percent minus his 9-of-15 performance. Jordan Hulls, one of the players most often cited as having benefited from the presence of a pass-thinking big man, took just one 3-point shot in that game. He missed it.
Zeller is exceedingly talented. He is one of the best forward/center prospects in this year’s NBA Draft class, and one of the best post players in college basketball. When he’s playing well, he is almost unmanageable for opposing defenses, and he fits really well into the fabric of his team’s offense and defense.
Preseason player of the year and All-America nods created for him expectations that were too generalized to be fair. The 7-foot sophomore isn’t a 24-and-14 kind of big man, which makes it hard to fit him into an archetype, so it feels like he should be doing more than he is.
But reasonably, without demanding more of the ball than is natural for him or healthy for Indiana offensively, Zeller’s offensive numbers will only go up if he ticks those efficiency numbers back up and make 1-2 field goals more per game than he is doing right now.
Goodman posits that Victor Oladipo, not Zeller, is Indiana’s most valuable player this year, and that’s almost inarguable. But it ignores the possibility that Zeller’s presence creates space for Oladipo to drive the lane and his screening has improved such that Oladipo can be wriggled free on those high ball screens he enjoys employing.
So as we approach the teeth of Indiana’s Big Ten schedule, with three of the next four on the road and Illinois, Michigan and Ohio State all on the schedule in that time, consider this question: