BOSTON (CBS) — When people talk about low-risk, high-reward trades in the NBA, you might not find a better example lately than Tyler Zeller.
Danny Ainge acquired the big man this summer by sacrificing nothing else but a $10 million trade exception that was due to expire in July, along with a future top-55 second-round draft pick that will never see the light of day. In essence, the Celtics acquired Zeller for nothing of value on their end. Instead of a low-risk move, it was virtually a no-risk move.
Celtics ownership had to swallow Marcus Thornton’s hefty $8.5 million salary, so Zeller and a future first-round pick were thrown in by Cleveland to make the deal worth Boston’s while. Brad Stevens and company likely saw the opportunity to get a cheap look at Zeller (on his rookie contract that lasts through the 2015-16 season) as a no-lose situation.
Like most of Boston’s current roster, expectations have been pretty low for the former first-round pick for much of this year. Zeller was a role player in his two seasons in Cleveland, seeing fluctuating minutes as the franchise circled through a rebuild that failed to show a lot of progress before LeBron’s return last summer.
Faced with a crowded frontcourt of young competition in Boston, Zeller wasn’t expected to separate himself from the rest of the pack. However, through 66 games, the seven-footer has had the most consistent season out of anyone, highlighted by his career-high 26 points on Monday night against the Sixers.
A look through his season numbers shows a guy that has been Stevens’ most vital contributors on both ends of the floor.
FG%: 54.5 (1st)
FT%: 81.8 (2nd)
FTA: 159 (2nd)
Offensive Rating: 119 (1st)
OReb%: 9.4 (2nd)
GP: 66 (1st)
Those eye-opening numbers and various Celtic injuries have cemented Zeller’s place in the starting lineup, as has a bit of a breakout since the All-Star Break. The former UNC star is averaging 11 points and 6.2 rebounds per game in that stretch despite only playing 24 minutes per contest. Over his last two games, the offensive production has skyrocketed, totaling 44 points in two wins against the Pacers and Sixers.
Many of those points came from open mid-range jumpers, a shot that Zeller is hitting at an impressive 50 percent clip this season.
“I think it’s just opportunity, especially against people like [Roy] Hibbert, who want to play at the basket, you can stretch the floor,” Tyler said of his recent high-scoring games. “I used it some my first two years in Cleveland, and now, if the opportunity’s there, being able to pick-and-pop in the middle, my teammates are realizing, and I’m showing them that I can shoot that. So they’re getting the ball to me. And then when I don’t have it, we’re making great plays off that.”
With the Celtics now squarely in control of their own destiny when it comes to the playoff race in the East, Zeller is relishing the diverse supporting cast Ainge has put together for this team to make a run.
“It’s a lot of fun,” Zeller said of the last couple of months. “The whole year we’ve been changing. I think Danny’s done a great job putting together the team that we’ve got. We’ve been playing with different players every night and finally have a team where we’ve settled in, playing with the same players every night and it’s fun to go to battle that way. We do a great job of playing hard and playing together.”
Perhaps most importantly, Zeller is relishing the chance to thrive in an environment in Boston he didn’t know much about before arriving.
“I knew it was a great opportunity. I didn’t realize how great of an opportunity it was. I didn’t realize that I’d be this comfortable or fit in this well or enjoy playing with my teammates like this as much as I do. It’s a great atmosphere to be around,” he said. “We all look out for each other, we all push each other to play hard and be in the right places. It’s a fun way to play.”
As the rebuilding process continues in Boston, Zeller is solidifying himself as a piece Ainge would be best served to keep around for the long haul.
Brian Robb covers the Celtics for CBS Boston and contributes to NBA.com, among other media outlets. You can follow him on Twitter @CelticsHub.