Looking to the Future: Searching for Dave Cowens

Published: March 3, 2012

White American-Born Centers have been mostly busts the past 25 years, yet three could become lottery picks this June. Would it be smart for a GM to avoid them based on recent history?

If Jeremy Lin has taught us anything (other than that a mediocre point guard is capable of  being on Sports Illustrated two weeks in a row), it is that there are some stereotypes that are still made in the NBA scouting community. Words like “deceptively quick” were used to describe Lin, because apparently he was never expected to be quick for some unknown reason. Is the same true with White, American-Born (WAB) players entering the draft process? We might not have to wait long to find out, as three WAB players are projected to be top 20 picks this June. And what makes it even more interesting is that all of them are centers, a position notorious for WAB player flameouts.

Looking back at all of the WAB centers taken in the lottery the past 20 years, we see a collection of mostly busts that didn’t make it for a bevy of reasons. Just check out the list of WAB centers taken in the lottery since 1985: Robert Swift, Cole Aldrich, Spencer Hawes, Chris Mihm, Michael Doleac, Chris Kaman, Todd Fuller, Cherokee Parks, Bryant Reeves, Eric Montross, Shawn Bradley, Adam Keefe, Jon Konkack, Joe Kleine

Remember, these are LOTTERY picks, several of them very high lottery picks and I count one above average starter (Kaman), four below average starters (Bradley, Hawes, Montross, and Big Country Reeves) and a slew of role players and straight out busts. There is only one All-Star appearance between them (Kaman), but over a dozen GM’s who lost their job (in part) because of their selection.

But is it fair to put all these guys in one group just because of the color of their skin and their country of origin? Maybe, maybe not. Perhaps labeling them caused them to become busts in the first place. Even if it is not probable, would you at least admit it is possible that the perception of WAB big men causes franchises to give up on them faster than they would a black or foreign player? Is it possible that their own teammates are predisposed to thinking that WAB centers can’t do certain things or won’t be able to develop particular attributes? Does it go back further than that?

The argument for the lack of success seen by black quarterbacks in the NFL is that coaches in middle school and high school see the black quarterback as an “athlete” and therefore do not help develop the pocket awareness. Could something similar be going on with the WAB big man? Do they assume he will be soft or unable to elevate around the basket, so coaches compensate by making them more perimeter oriented?

I don’t know the answers, but this upcoming draft will be an exciting test case, as three WAB centers have lottery pick potential, and they do not fit the stereotype whatsoever. These are not bulky, slow footed, plodding centers with a lack of athletisicm. Quite the opposite, in fact. These guys are to the center position what Tom Chambers and (young) Tom Gugliotta were to the forward position. From a raw attributes standpoint, they have more in common with a guy like DeAndre Jordan than they do someone like Cole Aldrich (even though you will see guys like Aldrich or Kaman listed under “similarities” just because of the color of their skin.)

Without further adieu, let’s take a look at the upcoming WAB center class:

1. Cody Zeller- Freshman, Indiana 6’11”, 215 (15.4 PPG, 6.5 RPG, 64% FG)

NBA Comparison: Greg Monroe

He doesn’t have Monroe’s passing skills, but I would say young Zeller is a more advanced post player at 19 than Monroe was when he was a freshman at Georgetown. Like Monroe, Zeller can play in the high post or low post and has the speed to beat most centers down the court, making him an excellent center for a team that likes to get out and run.

Zeller will probably be closer to 240 when his body finally matures, but he plays with tons of aggressiveness now, rarely shying away from contact. When he gets bigger and is able to hold his own in the defensive post, he should be able to cover both the 4 and 5 positions, and because of his foot speed he can be effective on the perimeter in pick and roll situations.

Unlike most centers, he is also a good free throw shooter and rarely turns the ball over despite constant double teams. What Zeller will have to work on is his ability to finish strong at the rim, but that could come with the added bulk and weight. Of the three, Cody Zeller undoubtedly has the most upside, it will just be a matter of whether or not he will be given the opportunity to reach it.

2. Tyler Zeller- Senior, UNC  7’0″, 250 (15.7 PPG, 9.3 RPG, 54.5% FG)

NBA Comparison: Joakim Noah

Not blessed with a bevy of go-to moves on the offensive end, Tyler Zeller gets the majority of his points via toughness, hard work, and position. Like Noah, he is 100% effort when he is on the court and he often does the little things that help a team win. Surrounded by a collection of highly touted prospects and preseason All-Americans, all Zeller has done is consistantly be the best player on a team most analysts expect to see in the Final Four this season.

Zeller’s body has matured in the way that most expect his younger brother to fill out in a couple years, though he still has the frame to put on another 10-15 pounds to compete with NBA centers. Like his younger brother, he also is an excellent free throw shooter for a big and is developing a mid-range game to help him out in the half court. Where he needs to get better is on the defensive glass. He is an excellent offensive rebounder, but his defensive rebounding is average at best.

3. Meyers Leonard- Sophomore, Illinois 7’0″, 240 (13.4 PPG, 7.4 RPG, 58.2% FG)

NBA Comparison: Marreese Speights (w/ better jumper)

Leonard did absolutely nothing his freshman year, but he has looked strong this season and could be the most athletic of the three. Like the Zeller brothers, he will likely have to add more weight, but he has done a great job so far of using good fundamentals to neutralize guys who have more bulk. He plays smart and is always looking to get position and finds a man to box out when it is time to get a rebound, rather than just rely on his athletisicm.

The team that drafts him will have to be patient, as Leonard is probably a good 2-3 years from contributing major minutes due to his lack of polish on the offensive end, but he could give a team a shot in the arm as an energy guy right away. He is also a friendly alley-oop target and could get several points that way, or at the very least, suck in the defense by rolling hard to the rim the way Chandler used to do. Of the three, he has the highest bust potential, but his ceiling is only a hair lower than Cody Zeller’s.

Looking to the Future is a weekly piece that runs every Saturday only on Hornets247.com. For past installments, click here.



  1. 504ever

    March 3, 2012 at 2:21 pm

    I am against drafting any of these guys. And the correlary to WABs don’t pan out theory is the Ayon theory: any high quality European player you can get for nothing is better.

    And if you don’t like that correlary, analyze the track record of WEB (white European born) big men lottery picks. It’s much better than the record of WAB big men lottery picks.

  2. sweetpea

    March 3, 2012 at 2:27 pm

    Well we know EG would love to have the Hornets draft the kid out of Indiana and that might be a factor, especially because he’s an athletic center in any event and could probably contribute the most right away. Going a little further back he actually reminds me a bit of Kevin McHale, though I’m of course not saying he’s a guaranteed Hall of Famer. I also really like the kid out of Illinois, he is really athletic and active…struck me as not unlike Gustavo, only about two or three inches taller. I like these two guys a lot, not so sold on the kid out of NC, surrounded by such talent and given the history of some of the centers that have come out of Chapel Hill (at least in terms of a risking a lottery pick … our second pick or a second round choice is different)

  3. Aaron

    March 3, 2012 at 4:18 pm

    How is the comment about (WBA) not racist? And let me ask you this, define WHITE? I’m considered White, but I’m a mix of Cherokee and Islanoes Indian, German, and French. Is there really a such thing as a pure white person? Also, I being white, have played in many sports. I ran in track in field and cross-country throughout school and won 1st and 2nd place prizes, along with placing among the top 200 in the CCC in 06′. I did all of this while training with my friends who so happened to be “Black.” I guess I broke the mole. I’m a fast white guy. I’m not by any means trying to stir the pot. I’m a huge fan of the Hornets, and I hope the get great draft picks and become a playoff team. However, I’m tired of the one sided race card that’s always played in this country. It’s ok if we classify everyone who looks the same, “white,” for instance, and say they are no good, but the second someone makes a comment about a “black” person everyone is up in arms. What if I were to say that Blacks are more athletic because there ancestors spent 300 years working in the fields, so there genes adapted giving them a stronger build? That’s a plausable and reasonably assumption. And by those means, the fact that slavery hasn’t been in existence for the last 100 years, things may start evening out. The thing is, you should look at a player for what he can do, not what he looks like or where he resides from. Even with the turmoil surrounding the Saints, I still support them and the Hornets; regardless it the players are black, white, asian, mexican, or european. I just wish everyone else would too.

    • Jason Calmes

      March 3, 2012 at 4:32 pm

      I don’t think Mike is being racist so much as saying that perhaps the data he presented would lead to a false conclusion that is very similar to racism.

      Maybe I’m being charitable here because I know Mike, but let me point out

      “But is it fair to put all these guys in one group just because of the color of their skin and their country of origin? Maybe, maybe not. Perhaps labeling them caused them to become busts in the first place. Even if it is not probable, would you at least admit it is possible that the perception of WAB big men causes franchises to give up on them faster than they would a black or foreign player? Is it possible that their own teammates are predisposed to thinking that WAB centers can’t do certain things or won’t be able to develop particular attributes? Does it go back further than that?”

      from his article, for instance.

      I do think your points are valid, Aaron, but I think you guys are agreeing, not disagreeing.

  4. Aaron

    March 3, 2012 at 4:36 pm


    I was directing the comment back to the original quote, which I assumed was from a previous article. I knew Mike and I were in agreement when I wrote my comment. Furthermore, I’m not trying to direct it to anyone in particular, as this issue is a nationwide one at the very least.

    • Jason Calmes

      March 3, 2012 at 4:47 pm

      I agree with you.

      I’m just making sure for all parties. It’s touchy thing, and I’m glad we can all discuss it here like reasonable people . . . maybe I’m being reasonablist . . .

  5. NOH Domination

    March 3, 2012 at 4:38 pm

    Please don’t get Meyers Leonard 🙁

  6. Joel

    March 3, 2012 at 5:02 pm

    Aaron you are a complete idiot if you think that is racist.. All he was doing was presenting facts.. If you can’t handle black and white being brought up get off the Internet.. Nothing racist at all you just want to bitch about something.

  7. Joel

    March 3, 2012 at 5:03 pm

    Your probably slow as shit to you just want to look good on a message board. I would smoke your ass and yes I’m white.

    • Jason Calmes

      March 3, 2012 at 5:52 pm

      Settle down…

      It’s a touchy thing…

      Now let’s just talk…

  8. Aaron

    March 3, 2012 at 9:27 pm

    First of all, If other groups of Americans have the right to voice their opinions on certain issues, this being racism, I certainly have that same right. Second, you know nothing about me nor my intelligence level, so keep your silly little comments to yourself. Third, the fact that you can’t make a rebuttal without cursing tells me something about your intelligence level. Fourth and final, If I were remotely concerned about what you thought about my comments, I would take you up on your offer, and you’d learn a lesson about losing after challenging people that you’ve never met.

    While “you” may be a pushover, and not stand up for what you believe in, that’s not me. I’m not afraid to voice my opinion about what I think, and I’ll express it regardless of other peoples opinions. “I” don’t think it’s right to single out “White” players, and not give them the same opportunities based on a biased opinion. Nor do I think other ethnicities want to be singled out either. And by the way, I have nothing wrong with black and white being brought up. In fact I encourage it, that’s why I commented on it. You my friend seem to be the one afraid to discuss the matter.

  9. Aaron

    March 3, 2012 at 11:17 pm

    I apologize if I caused you guys to remove the article from the espn website. I just got caught up in the moment.

  10. David

    March 4, 2012 at 6:33 am

    Fact is there are more black guys in the NBA and at the skill positions in the NFL. It’s just the facts, how it is. If you can’t handle it go cry somewhere else. He makes valid points based on past history and fact.

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  12. J

    May 20, 2012 at 8:07 am

    The biggest problem with white american players is they’ve not played around black players in high school because most white players played at predominantly white high schools.The skill and speed is very paramount to all players but well known in black players though but WEB players will always be better than the white american players because of the strict discpline they believe in.

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