Mar 28, 2013; Washington, D.C., USA; Indiana Hoosiers forward Cody Zeller (40) walks off the court after losing to the Syracuse Orange 61-50 in the semifinals of the East regional of the 2013 NCAA tournament at the Verizon Center. Mandatory Credit: Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

Wizards Draft Target: Cody Zeller

With another marvelous NCAA tournament in the books, it’s time to shift our attention to the draft and evaluate prospects that could be suiting up for the Wizards next season.

Cody Zeller, Sophomore, PF/C, Indiana

36 games: 29.5MPG, 16.5PPG, 8.1RPG, 1.3APG, 1.3BPG, 56%FG, 76%FT

2012-13 season: Cody Zeller made the calculated decision to come back to school following an outstanding freshman season at Indiana where he was awarded the Big Ten Freshman of the Year award and led the Hoosiers to a 15 win turnaround from the previous year. Already being projected a top ten pick in the 2012 draft; Zeller was touted as an advanced low post threat with a developing midrange game and an uncanny ability to run the court well. It was up to him to work on his jumper, improve on defense, and learn to box out more physical bigs down low.

Now with the spotlight shining directly on him, Zeller was tasked with avoiding the sophomore slump and continuing his brilliance at Assembly Hall. Inevitably, the nitpicking emanated and questions with his physical stature and lack of toughness became mainstream among the viewing audience.  Soon enough, pundits became fastened to the theory that Zeller will be nothing more than a good college player that’s too “soft” for the pros. Nevertheless, despite the endless rave about Zeller’s tumbling draft stock, he managed to develop the aforementioned flaws that haunted him as a freshman.

Strengths: Zeller’s highly advanced offensive game has kept scouts intrigued about the young big man at the next level. His footwork and soft touch around the basket makes for a passable back to the basket player considering his frame, and his face-up game- the ability to pop out or come off a ball screen and hit the 16 footer has virtually kept him in the lottery. His general alacrity at finding shooters and cutters off the dribble is unparalleled at his size in college basketball, and he employs that skill well as he runs the floor and fills his lane in transition. After struggling for much of his freshman season on the defensive end, Cody has polished his pick and roll coverage, he’s now comfortable switching out onto guards along the perimeter, does a nice job hedging and recovering on high pick and rolls, and is quicker to help and rotate in the post, though his shortcomings as a shot blocker has hampered this to a large extent.

Weaknesses: This discussion starts and ends with finishing at the rim. After watching film and looking up his abnormally short wingspan (6’8 according to DraftExpress), it’s very easy to assume he will have his problems against lengthier defenders in the NBA. His 2-7FG effort against Michigan State, 2-9FG effort against Minnesota, 4-10FG effort against Wisconsin, and his final two tourney games against Temple and Syracuse all corroborate the concerns many have. Whether it’s by design or not, Zeller has a tendency to flash to the high post, fake, and drive right into the body of his defender, compromising any leverage he would have had, had he gone straight up with the ball. He also tends to get lower as he makes his move to the hoop, and gradually begins to gather himself as he goes up for the shot. These vices, while significant, are repercussions of his short wingspan more than anything else.

On the defensive end, Zeller has to do a better job pushing his man off the block and using his lower body to absorb contact so that he’s not getting backed down as easily. This would also show up in his rebounding totals, which really didn’t show a huge improvement from year 1 to year 2 (going from a 16.8DRB% to 18.8DRB% per basketball reference).

Pro potential/Wizards fit: It’s so easy to take a prospect’s stats and college career for face value and judge whether he’s fit for the NBA or not. The draft process is such an intricate inclusion of fit and talent level, as so eloquently ascertained by SBNation’s Paul Flannery in this piece on Ryan McDonough and the Celtics brain trust. McDonough, who is applauded for drafting Rajon Rondo, Avery Bradley, and Jared Sullinger, fancied the idea that these extremely talented individuals were being misunderstood and misused in college, and the heat that they received from draft pundits were out of place. Rather than castigating their struggles, he took an outside of the box approach and questioned the system, and whether these kids were given a fair chance to succeed in college. This isn’t to belittle college coaches, they strategize and incorporate players to fit their system and get the best out of their team, rather than the other way around.

The problem with Cody Zeller at Indiana was that he was forced to play center, despite the strengths and weaknesses previously outlined. Christian Watford was the stretch 4, was in his 4th year, and earned the right to be a starter under Tom Crean. There was no other inside presence on the roster, so Zeller was asked to deviate away from his bread and butter for the betterment of the team. Thus, the awkward drives to the basket, the reluctance to shoot jumpers, and the accentuation of his poor shot blocking and help defense. These shortcomings would have been concealed had he played power forward, and was paired with better personnel at the center position.

In a lot of ways, Zeller’s skill-set draws many parallels to Nene, so what better way to bring him along than under the tutelage of the Big Brazilian for the next two years? His skill-set fits the direction of this team tremendously, and he has a chance to make an immediate impact as a rotational big. This organization has failed at developing a big man more times than I can remember, but they have never seen one as skilled as Cody Zeller.

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