INDEPENDENCE: Still sporting a prominent purple mark under his eye, Cavaliers rookie center Tyler Zeller is set to return to the lineup after returning to practice Thursday.
Zeller, a 7-foot rookie center, can laugh about it now, but taking an elbow from forward DeAndre Jordan in a game against the Los Angeles Clippers on Nov. 5 left him with a fractured cheekbone and a concussion. His departure also handicapped the Cavs during their recent less-than-stellar road trip.
“You should have seen it four days ago,” Zeller said when told he didn’t look too bad. “It’s getting better every day. It doesn’t hurt as bad today as it did yesterday. Every day it’s healing and getting better.”
To play, Zeller has a custom-made mask, something similar to what Rip Hamilton of the Chicago Bulls wears.
It’s not exactly his favorite part of returning to the court.
“It’s kind of tedious,” Zeller said. “It’s like anything. You’ve got to get used to it. It’s definitely a change. They did a great job of making it.
“My vision isn’t impaired too much. For the most part I can see. Dribbling could be more of a problem, but I don’t dribble anyway. So it’s cool.”
And there’s little doubt that coach Byron Scott and his teammates will be happy to see him come back. Defensive issues plagued the Cavs during their recent road trip, but the reserves have taken criticism, too.
Scott expects Zeller’s return will provide some impact.
“Big time. Just having him back will help,” Scott said. “He’s another big body who knows how to play. He’s an integral part of what we do. He helps our rotation better.”
Starting point guard Kyrie Irving agreed.
“Him coming back has definitely been beneficial. Jon [Leuer] and Samardo [Samuels] did a good job,” he said. “ Hopefully, Tyler plays this Saturday.”
So far, providing there are no setbacks, team doctors cleared him to play Saturday at home against the Dallas Mavericks. Given the three-part test players must pass before returning from a concussion, nothing should be taken for granted. Not all of Zeller’s functionality came back at once.
“There’s a reaction part. There’s two memory parts. There’s a balance part,” Zeller said. “They break it up into three parts. I passed one of three the first day, then two of three the next day.”
Returning to practice provides its share of challenges for Zeller.
“He looked pretty good. His wind was a little short. A little rust,” Scott said. “Good thing he has three days before our next game. He can knock some of that rust off. He had a little trouble running up and down yesterday.”
Apparently Scott’s willing to knock plenty of the rust off.
“I hadn’t really run a lot because of the concussion. You’ve got to sit out and rehab, and they kind of wean you back into it. He initiated me back into practice pretty easily,” Zeller said.
What doesn’t concern Zeller or Scott is whether this type of injury will affect him mentally on the court.
“I think you’ve just got to continue to play and not worry about it,” Zeller said. “It happens. If you’re worried about that it’s going to change the way you play.”
For Scott, it’s just a matter of him returning to form.
“After you go through it and get hit and bumped, the game becomes elementary,” he said. “I think he’ll be fine and not think about it whatsoever. He’ll try to pick up where he left off. The last game he played, he played extremely well.”
Before the injury, Zeller scored 15 points and pulled down seven rebounds against the Clippers, showing flashes of the type of player he could be, but even in that case he is cautious.
“Things were starting to slow down,” he said. “I’d like to get a streak of those going and then I would say I was in my stride.”
After giving up 52 percent shooting during their six-game road trip, there’s little doubt that defense was the point of emphasis in practice.
“Today’s energy and focus was great,” Scott said. “We have to continue to get better on that end of the floor. It’s going to take multiple efforts from every person on the court to get better.”
Things are apparently sinking in.
“These couple of days have been really good for us,” Irving said. “We’ve done a lot of running, I can tell you that, and there’s a lot of focus on defense.”