The Zeller brothers grew up in Washington, Indiana, just a two-hour drive from Butler University, so former Bulldogs coach Brad Stevens is plenty familiar with the family. He even tried to recruit a couple of the boys -- after all, all three earned Indiana's Mr. Basketball honors -- but Stevens admitted he never attempted to hook the middle brother, Tyler.
"I actually didn't recruit Tyler because I didn't think we'd have a chance to get him," Stevens said.
Despite striking out in his pursuit of younger brother Cody and older brother Luke, Stevens, now the head coach of the Celtics, finally landed a Zeller this past week, when Boston acquired Tyler as part of a three-team trade with the Cleveland Cavaliers and Brooklyn Nets.
For the size-deprived Celtics, landing a skilled 7-footer might have been the coup of a risk-free trade that also brought veteran guard Marcus Thornton and Cleveland's 2016 first-round pick. The 24-year-old Zeller, a former first-round selection (17th overall in 2012), should compete immediately for minutes at the center position.
Stevens didn't need a scouting report when assessing what Zeller can bring to Boston.
"First and foremost, I think he's a great transition rim-runner," he said. "I think he can really get out and fly up and down the court. And I think that showed itself a lot at North Carolina. A guy with his skill can score on the block but also stretch the defense and has enough handle and savvy to play facing the basket. And you can kind of play around him -- not too dissimilar from some of other big guys that we have now. He's 7-foot, 250 pounds, and takes really good care of himself and is an invested pro."
Zeller has averaged 5.9 points and 4.9 rebounds over two NBA seasons for the Cavaliers. He earned big minutes early in his pro career and started 55 of 77 appearances his rookie season while averaging 7.9 points, 5.7 rebounds and 26.4 minutes per game.
His playing time dipped last year, but Zeller did get a chance to showcase himself late in the season, and his stat line spiked (12 points, 6.8 rebounds and 21.7 minutes per game in six appearances in April). The Celtics are hoping he can build off that potential on a team that sorely lacked a true center for most of the past season.
Zeller has the length and athleticism to deter shots -- opponents shot just 47.3 percent near the rim against him this past season, according to the league's player tracking data. That's a respectable number when you consider that opponents shot 47 percent against Indiana's David West and 46.8 percent against Chicago's Joakim Noah. That said, Stevens cautions against overexcitement.
"We've talked about how, in an ideal world, Sullinger plays the 4," Stevens said. "At the same time, I think Tyler would be the first to tell you he's not going to block shots like [Dikembe] Mutumbo or some of the great shot-blockers in the history of the game. He's more of a position defender. He's a strong guy. He's an agile guy. He can move his feet laterally. But he's not necessarily a huge shot-blocker at the rim.
"Now, there are different ways to affect drives," he continued. "You can meet people outside the circle. You can jump straight up and still affect them with your strength and size if they go into your body, as long as you're vertical. That will be more of what he has to do."
Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge noted how Zeller fits into the style of play Stevens and the team envision moving forward.
"He can rebound, he can shoot, he can run," Ainge said. "He's 7 feet tall, and I think he fits into how we want to play and how Brad wants to have that center position be a runner. You know, get up the court and run to the front of the rim. He fits all that criteria. He is a good young talent. We're excited to have him."
Unless Boston continues to play the likes of Kelly Olynyk or Sullinger out of position at the center spot, Zeller's primary competition will come from Vitor Faverani, the second-year big man who is recovering from knee surgery. The Celtics also have Joel Anthony on the roster, though he's unlikely to see his role grow from the past season (if he's still around). Boston also must decide if it wishes to carry Colton Iverson, a 2013 second-round pick who spent the 2013-14 season playing in Turkey, though he projects as end-of-the-roster depth if signed.
Zeller likely will get every chance to earn a starting spot next season. He's a low-cost body, and the Celtics will hold a $2.6 million team option on him for the 2015-16 campaign. If he develops into a serviceable rotation player, Boston will have gotten a steal in this trade, given that they gave up only a conditional second-round pick while absorbing salary with a trade exception.
Zeller got married on Saturday. Stevens said he talked to him a couple of days before the nuptials and welcomed him to the team.
"I'm happy for him," Stevens said. "Kind of a crazy time for him to get traded -- three days before he gets married and then goes on his honeymoon. I just said, 'Hope you enjoy it. Tell your family, "Hi," and we'll talk to you when you get back.'"
After all these years, Stevens finally got himself a Zeller.
"I know their family really well," Stevens said. "Great family. Just terrific people. All three boys are great students and very good basketball players. Tyler is a guy that has accomplished quite a bit in his basketball career -- obviously in high school, winning state championships, and then in college, winning a national championship and being an ACC player of the year. Then in his first two years in the league, he has had some good moments, and I think [he] will really continue to blossom here."