The running joke with last year’s rookies was Similac. The recurring theme with this group is the speed limit.
Give Cavaliers coach Byron Scott credit for his creative illustrations. Credit him also for his ability to bring rookies along and integrate them into the system.
The latest example is Tyler Zeller, who has at least a chance at starting Tuesday’s season opener. If he doesn’t start, he’s at least assured of being one of the first big men off the bench.
The Cavs were elated to draft Zeller. No one expects him to make multiple All-Star games, but Zeller is the type of player expected to have a long, productive and steady career.
Scuttlebutt around Las Vegas during summer league was that the Houston Rockets had two players they considered locks to be very good NBA players in last year’s draft — Anthony Davis and Zeller.
The Rockets, however, were preoccupied with taking players they thought the Orlando Magic wanted in exchange for Dwight Howard, leaving the Cavs to move up seven spots and nab their future starting center. It’s just that the future could be coming much sooner than expected.
When camp began, Scott didn’t believe Zeller had much of a chance to start opening night. The game was whirring by him at 120 mph. He looked unsure of himself, slow to attack the basket and quick to get confused on defensive coverages.
Now Scott is saying it’s fair to call Zeller the most improved player from the start of training camp until now.
“That’s fair to say. I think he’s starting to pick up stuff,” Scott said. “I think he’s probably more comfortable in what he’s doing than even Dion [Waiters]. But he went to school for four years as well.”
Zeller’s performance in the Cavs’ preseason finale against Roy Hibbert, the Indiana Pacers’ All-Star center, made a huge impression on Scott and the front office. It made Scott rethink his starting lineup, it proved to the front office the type of player Zeller can be and, most importantly, proved it to Zeller himself.
It was the first time he was able to stop thinking and start playing, which coaches will tell you is a key point in a player’s evolution.
He finished with 13 points and seven rebounds and held Hibbert to four points and five rebounds.
“Everything fell into place that night,” Zeller said. “I finally quit thinking about what I needed to do and just started doing it. That’s kind of nice.”
The fact he did it against an All-Star center was even better.
“It’s definitely something you can carry forward,” Zeller said. “It gives you [the feeling] of, ‘All right, I did it. I can do this.’ It gives you that confidence. Now whether I can do it night in and night out is a different story.”
Zeller’s emergence should allow the Cavs to trade Anderson Varejao at the trade deadline. Part of the organization’s hesitation to move him previously was the fear there was no one capable of replacing him.
Varejao recently turned 30 and isn’t a long-term fit on this team. Chris Grant’s goal is to build a young nucleus of players who can grow — and ultimately win — together. Varejao’s age prevents him from being in that group.
When Kyrie Irving and Tristan Thompson were rookies last year, Scott joked that their breath still smelled like Similac, the baby formula fed to newborns. With Waiters and Zeller, Scott has maintained the speed of the game is progressively slowing down.
It started at 120 and has dipped to about 80. He said Waiters was sensational in the team’s scrimmage on Friday, further proof the rookies are starting to get it. Scott believes the depth on this team will be much better than his first two years, in part because of players like Waiters and Zeller.
“The fact I can look down this year on the bench and say, ‘OK, I’ve got some options,’ ” Scott said. “That’s a pretty good feeling.”
Jason Lloyd can be reached at email@example.com. Read the Cavs blog at http://www.ohio.com/cavs. Follow him on Twitter http://www.twitter.com/JasonLloydABJ. Follow ABJ sports on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/sports.abj.