The NBA named Boston Celtics guard Isaiah Thomas the Eastern Conference player of the week Monday. You could have made the case for a few players on Boston's roster, one obvious option being Avery Bradley (Friday's hero in Cleveland and Sunday's leading scorer against Sacramento), but here's another possibility that might not have been so evident: Tyler Zeller.
As part of Boston's perfect 4-0 week, Zeller owned the best net rating on the team at plus-11.4 points per 100 possessions (a bucket better than Thomas, who finished at plus-9.4). The Celtics owned a team-best offensive rating of 109.6 when Zeller was on the floor, and a defensive rating of 98.2 during that span that was nothing to sneeze at, either.
Over those four games to start the month of February, Zeller averaged 13.8 points, 6.5 rebounds, 1.5 assists and 1.3 blocks over 20.5 minutes per game. He shot 68.8 percent and owned the best total rebound percentage (18.2) on the team in that span.
What's most impressive is that Zeller, with 18 DNPs to his name this season, has been a consistent late-game presence after essentially being glued to the bench for much of the early part of the season. His professionalism in not only accepting a diminished role -- Zeller started 59 games while appearing in all 82 tilts last season -- but staying ready for when his number was called is not lost on his teammates.
"A true pro, a guy who's been on the bad end of the stick and hasn't really played that much," Thomas said of Zeller. "Every time his name is called he's ready, and that's the definition of a true professional right there. He puts the work in each and every day, and he's a great teammate."
Echoed Bradley: "I'm just happy for Tyler, he's getting a chance to play, he's playing well, he's been playing well for us for the last [four] games. I'm just happy that he's out there and he's playing basketball."
Zeller seems happy, and pretty relieved, too. While he never openly griped about his nonexistent role early in the season, he had every right to be mystified by his lack of opportunity, particularly when the team kept going back to David Lee in hopes of finding a big who could provide an offensive spark off the bench.
In mid-December, Celtics coach Brad Stevens started giving Zeller opportunities, but it was typically fleeting. Zeller scored 12 points in 10 minutes against Detroit on Dec. 16 and logged a DNP two nights later in a loss to the Atlanta Hawks (some of Zeller's opportunities were certainly determined by matchups). It would be another month before Zeller got consistent minutes again, and it took him time to shake off obvious rust and find his touch. But lately he has been one of Boston's most consistent bigs.
For the Celtics, this is no small development. While Stevens was adamant during Zeller's DNP stretch that the 26-year-old big man would eventually help the team again, being able to dust off a 7-footer capable of running the floor and rolling to the rim like Zeller has recently is a big midseason boost. If -- and that's a big if -- Zeller can maintain his recent impact, he has potential to be the biggest February rotation addition that Boston will make (assuming no big move materializes before the trade deadline).
With Zeller and Jared Sullinger elevating their play recently, it has caused a downturn in minutes for Amir Johnson (just 17.3 minutes per game over the past four games). Because the two-year, $24 million contract Johnson signed this past offseason is non-guaranteed next season, there's a thought that he might be a possible trade asset for Boston at the deadline (particularly if the market is thin on available bigs). Johnson's defense and rim protection probably makes that unlikely, and an uptick in minutes is as close as a teammate's next slump. The bottom line is that Zeller's improved play has potentially given Danny Ainge additional flexibility at the deadline, while maybe also preventing an urge to overspend on big-man help.
It is critical not to overreact to a brief stretch of solid play, for both the Celtics as a team and Zeller individually. But Zeller was excellent last week, shooting the midrange jumper with confidence and using the space on a floor-stretching second unit to roll hard to the rim.
Boston's second-unit ball handlers -- Bradley, Evan Turner and Marcus Smart -- seem to be growing more comfortable with Zeller in recent games. With about four minutes to play in Sunday's game against the Kings, and Sacramento making a bit of a run, Bradley ran a high pick-and-roll with Zeller, then delivered a sleek pocket pass that Zeller grabbed near the free throw line, split DeMarcus Cousins and Willie Cauley-Stein, and finished a left-handed layup at the rim.
"One thing about Tyler, Tyler's always going to run the floor really hard and he's always going to roll to the rim really hard," Stevens said. "And so you've got a stable presence at the rim, so you know that, and we were getting some good things from our shooters, and so to have a guy that's going to be at the rim is going to open up some opportunities for the guys on the perimeter, and it's going to hopefully end up opening opportunities for him. And then I thought he did a good job, obviously, in playing in the seams and knocking down a few open shots, too. So Tyler's doing great."
Zeller must still improve his defense and make sure he is quicker to spots with help. His turnovers are up from past seasons; he turned the ball over nine times in the past four games, including seven in the past two games.
But the bottom line is that Zeller is helping this team and is another bench body who has elevated his play to help Boston thrive recently. He stayed ready and pounced on his opportunity.
Player of the Week worthy? Probably not. But the Celtics don't go 4-0 without Zeller this past week.