BOSTON (CBS) – Tyler Zeller arrived in Boston last summer to play for a fanbase that had modest expectations for him. The former first-round pick had been a useful rotation player during his first two seasons with the Cleveland Cavaliers, but it remained unknown whether he could be a viable contributor on a playoff team.
Under Brad Stevens’ tutelage last season, Zeller silenced the doubters on that front and surprised the Celtics’ brass with his production. He posted career-highs in points, rebounds, assists and field goal percentage despite only playing 21 minutes per game. His shooting percentage of 54.9 topped the entire roster, earning him a spot in the starting lineup for 59 of his 82 games.
That performance has put Zeller on top of Danny Ainge’s list this fall when it comes to players eligible for contract extensions. The 25-year-old is in the final year of his rookie deal right now, making him eligible to sign an extension up to October 31st. Otherwise, the big man will become a restricted free agent at year-end.
On Tuesday at the Boston Celtics Shamrock Foundation Teeing Up for Kids Golf Tournament, Zeller spoke about the possibility of remaining in Boston long-term.
“Yeah, I mean, you are always hopeful for it, but at the same time, you are trying to prepare for the year,” Zeller explained. “Whatever happens, happens kind of thing. As of right now, I’m trying to get ready for the year and trying not to worry about that.”
Zach Lowe of Grantland reported earlier this summer that Zeller could reportedly command an extension worth up to $12 million per year. That’s a hefty sum for a guy who only averaged 21 minutes per game last season, but it’s reflective of an NBA free agent market that should see skyrocketing salaries thanks to a rising salary cap.
If Ainge wants to get some kind of a discount on Zeller, it would serve him well to lock up the big man now. The center admitted that the idea of some long-term security is appealing to him before the start of the year.
“Obviously, it would be nice to have an extension, since it’s a little more security,” Zeller said. “At the same time, you have to approach the year and can’t be heartbroken if you don’t get it. You got to make sure you are fully prepared. Either way, I have to do my job this year. I have one more year on my contract so I have to go out and do as much as I can to help our team this year.”
Zeller is not the only player up for an extension; Jared Sullinger and Perry Jones are eligible as well. Jones is not a lock to even make the roster, but Ainge acknowledged that he’s considering a new contract for Sullinger, in addition to a Zeller deal.
“I’ve had preliminary conversations with the representatives of those players,” Ainge said. “We’ll see how it goes in October. We have until the end of October to make those decisions and we’ll see how training camp goes.”
With new big men David Lee and Amir Johnson in the fold, Zeller and Sullinger will have to be at their best in the preseason to convince Ainge they are worthy of a long-term commitment.
Brian Robb covers the Celtics for CBS Boston and contributes to NBA.com, among other media outlets. You can follow him on Twitter @CelticsHub.