Expectations soared for Cody Zeller in the preseason. The Hoosiers haven’t finished college hoops March gauntlet as Public Enemy No.1 since Keith Smart drained “The Shot” to win the ’87 Tourney. For a program that came to expect national championships like sneakerheads itching for their annual Air Jordan’s, the last quarter century has been distressing.
During the preseason, Zeller was a consensus pick for National Player of the Year and graced the cover of Sports Illustrated’s 2012 college hoops preview issue. As a freshman the 7-footer also showed enough promise for draft scouts and pundits to project him exactly where college basketball players perched his Hoosiers on Top 25 lists, No. 1. However, don’t believe the hype.
Instead of taking a Blake Griffin-sized sophomore leap over lofty expectations into a dominating collegiate entity, he has slid out of most reputable top-ten POY rankings.
The Hoosiers haven’t taken a similar Top 25 tumble, but they did stumble to their only loss against in-state foe Butler. With the score knotted up at 86, Butler’s Alex Barlow left Indiana guard Jordan Hulls paralyzed with a left-right crossover charged down the center of the lane, spun and flipped up a floater that founds its way through the cylinder.
6-7 forward Will Sheehey was in position to block or at least contest Barlow’s shot, but the junior has a lower rejection rate than DeVry – only 14 blocked shots in his college career. In 37 minutes, Zeller finished with 18 points, five boards, one block, zero fouls and was firmly planted on the bench during Butler’s final possession.
Among Big Ten Player of the Year candidates and the nation’s best big men, Zeller comes up smaller than expected.
“It will help a lot, they do a lot of things I can't,” said Zeller. “Have you seen their arms?” – in response to a question regarding the return of freshmen Peter Jurkin and Hanner Mosquera-Perea from a nine-game suspension. In his first game back Mosquera-Perea grabbed 10 boards in 14 minutes. Zeller finished with six in 22.
Zeller is no boom or bust NBA prospect, but the Hoosiers center’s sky-high potential appears to have plateaued. But why? He’s an unspectacular but efficient scorer. After averaging a disappointing 6.6 boards per game as a freshman, Zeller’s upped his average boards to 8.1 while his scoring average has stayed steady (16.1). Zeller packed on 15 pounds in the offseason and sprouted an inch to presumably improve his post scoring and rebounding ability, but reaching his potential may be a problem.
Unfortunately, no amount of weight training or nutrition can make up for the cruelty of a line of business where genetics can cancel out 20 years, 10,000 lost gym hours and gallons of lost sweat in pursuit of court perfection.
Zeller is the anti-Ben Wallace. A major factor in Wallace going undrafted in ’96 was a result of his underwhelming height. However, scouts failed to factor in his freakish arm length, intelligence, instincts and vertical leap that allowed him to play bigger. Conversely, Zeller’s Webster-sized wingspan bumps him down a peg.
While Anthony Davis’ 7-5 wingspan anchored Kentucky’s national title frontcourt defense last year, Zeller’s 6-8 T-Rex arms separate him from most elite post prospects. To put that in perspective, that is the average wingspan for a 6-4 guard. Zeller’s brother, Tyler has short arms too.
Zeller may have to grab a seat on the All-American second-team. Despite standing two inches shorter, Duke center Mason Plumlee has made a bigger dent in the post than Zeller. Ben McClemore, Trey Burke, Shabazz Muhammad, Michael Carter-Williams, Russ Smith and late bloomer Brandon Paul have all set themselves apart from the field. Some have disavowed his pole position in the No. 1 pick derby.
However, it’s not all bad news for Zeller. For all his shortcomings, Indiana remains a top-five squad and Zeller’s the 96th best rebounder in the nation. He was 232nd last season. Zeller doesn’t own any ill-McHale type post moves, but he stuffs the stat sheet like Kobiyashi standing in front of a plate of Ballpark Franks.
The problem is, his freshman campaign was supposed to be the appetizer and a preview of his talent, not the four course meal. Zeller was once compared to a best case scenario LaMarcus Aldridge. Another year of dissecting his skill-set has seen those comparisons regress into Drew Gooden reborn.
After Gooden’s breakout sophomore season for Kansas in 2001, Gooden returned to lead the Jayhawks to the ‘02 Final Four, helped himself to three extra boards per game and was named runner-up to National POY Jay Williams.
After averaging 15.6 points, 9.2 rebounds, 1.1 blocks in three Jayhawk seasons, Gooden was drafted fourth overall by the Orlando Magic before carving out an 11-year NBA journeyman career. It’s been nothing to marvel at but it’s been a respectable run and Gooden’s career just about defines the Z-man’s game.
Zeller is Gooden but not great.