By Jason Lloyd
Beacon Journal sports writer
CLEVELAND: Whether it’s one game, one week or longer, Tyler Zeller finally has the opportunity to show the Cavs what he can do with starter’s minutes. Since Anderson Varejao will be in the final year of his contract next season, and only about half of it is guaranteed, he can be a valuable trade chip on the market this summer.
Varejao becomes a little more expendable if Zeller proves he’s ready to start in the NBA between now and then. Zeller earned his first start at center Tuesday, when the Cavs hosted the New Orleans Pelicans because Varejao is out with a hyperextended and bruised left knee.
It’s unclear how long Varejao will be out, but Zeller has been more aggressive in his second season and conceded he was lost last year when he started 55 games as a rookie and averaged 7.9 points and 5.5 rebounds.
“There were many times [last season] I’d catch the ball and after I caught the ball was trying to find people,” Zeller said. “This year you still have that every once in a while, but for the most part you can be much more definitive and know where people are. I’m just trying to make the easier play than almost panicking and not knowing what to do.”
Mike Brown has called Zeller a more skilled Jeff Foster, who played 13 years with the Indiana Pacers and scored more than 3,700 points and grabbed more than 5,200 rebounds in his career.
Zeller has been more aggressive attacking the basket this season off pick-and-rolls after spending most of his time around the perimeter as a rookie. Brown wants him to continue rolling to the basket with force.
“If Tyler ever gets that consistently in his game, nobody is stopping him at the rim,” Brown said. “We’ve been preaching that to him since we got here starting in the summer time. If he takes that knee one time and puts it in someone’s Adam’s apple on a roll and gets a charge, I’m OK with it. I’ll even buy him lunch. He can be a dangerous roller.”
It’s unclear how much time Varejao will miss with the knee injury. He was wearing a brace on his knee, but wasn’t scratched until an hour before the game.
Brown didn’t get a good look at the injury, which occurred when the Phoenix Suns’ Markieff Morris rolled into Varejao’s knee, but watched it on film.
“Knowing that he’s been a little banged up, you worry,” Brown said. “You worry when anybody goes down, but especially Andy when he’s been a little banged up already.”
After battling injuries each of the last three seasons, Tuesday marked the first game Varejao missed this season.
We’re No. 1
The three most recent No. 1 overall picks were on the floor Tuesday in Kyrie Irving, Anthony Davis and Anthony Bennett.
Davis is on pace to become the first player to average at least 20 points, 10 rebounds and three blocks since Shaquille O’Neal did it during the 1999-00 season.
When the All-Star reserves are announced Thursday night, Pelicans coach Monty Williams believes Davis should be on the list. Knowing the additional pressures he was facing as the No. 1 overall pick, Williams tried protecting Davis at times last season. This season, there are no restrictions or protections.
“I tried to put myself in his shoes last year and tried to take as much pressure off him by not playing him in situations where I thought he might fail,” Williams said. “That was my way of shielding him. There were times last year where I just didn’t think he was ready, or I just didn’t want him to lose confidence if he went out there and didn’t do as well. I think that hurts younger guys. Only coaches know that. Sometimes you just have to take the heat when you’re trying to protect your guy.”
Williams told Davis last summer he was turning him loose.
“I just told him, ‘I’m hands off now. I’m going to put you out there and now you’ve got to go,’ ” Williams said. “He just said, ‘Coach I’m ready, let me go.’ ”
Carrick Felix suffered a stress fracture in his left knee and is expected to miss the next six to eight weeks. … There’s a reason Zeller uses his left hand so much around the basket — the fingers on his left hand are about a quarter inch longer than on his right. … Tristan Thompson is a big WWE fan, but he didn’t attend Monday Night Raw at Quicken Loans Arena. “I needed my rest,” he said. Thompson received an authentic WWE championship belt last week when two wrestlers were in town promoting the Raw event.