Sixth Pick Tournament Round Two: Alex Len vs. Cody Zeller

Published: June 14, 2013

Two big men go head-to-head in the second round of the Sixth Pick Tournament, as James Grayson and Michael Pellissier argue for Alex Len and Cody Zeller.

The Case for Cody Zeller (Grayson)

I love our readers and Pelican fans. It’s not just because they’re passionate, open-minded and engaging. It’s because they’re smart. You guys are some of the most knowledgeable fans in all of professional sports. If there was an opening at Tulane University to teach Pelicans basketball pretty much every one of you would be excellent professors.

With that in mind it’s a no-brainer that Cody Zeller is the better fit for the Pelicans at 6th than Alex Len.

Before we get into his strengths which I’ll expand on last round, let’s talk about some of the misconceptions.

MISCONCEPTION 1: He Doesn’t Play Well in the Big Game

One of the biggest criticisms of Zeller is that he can’t play in the big game. This abhorrently incorrect judgement began after Cody had a pretty bad game against Syracuse in the NCAA Tournament. They packed the lane and didn’t allow Indiana to get out and run. Indiana couldn’t get stops which further compounded the problem.

But the notion that Zeller can’t play in the important games is severely incorrect. This season he had several games against Top-10 teams and he flourished. Against #1 Michigan he scored 19 points, had 10 rebounds and 2 blocks. When playing #10 Ohio State Zeller scored 24 points, corralled 8 boards and had a block. When an athletic North Carolina team tried to attack the hoop Cody had 4 blocks, scored 20 points and had 8 rebounds.

He can perform against the top-talent in the country and that differs from Len who only played 5 times against top-20 opponents (3 of which was against Duke) compared to Zeller’s 10.

MISCONCEPTION 2: He can’t rebound

From his freshman season to sophomore season Cody Zeller improved his rebounding numbers. In 2011 he averaged 6.6 rebounds per-game. In 2012 he averaged 8 per-game.

You might think that this is an effect of increasing his minutes. However Zeller improved his Rebound-Percentage as well from 14.2% to 15.8%. This isn’t too far off from Alex Len who averaged 16.5%.

MISCONCEPTION 3: Other Prospects Have More Upside

For everyone in every professional sport the tagline “upside” is usually attributed to the player with a lack of basic skills who is extremely athletic. We see it every year, people get enamoured with prospects that jump out of the gym, that are quicker than their pupils.

Cody Zeller beat every single center in this year’s combine in every single drill. Zeller’s raw athletic numbers are off the chart. He posted a better vertical that Blake Griffin (37.5 vs. 35.5). Look at some of the numbers:


People don’t think he has upside because he played large minutes at a big program and was a staple of the offense. Yet why would people be more excited about a prospect who’s played less and isn’t athletic? I just don’t understand it.

Combine these raw athletic numbers with his excellent basketball skill-set and you have found a player with real upside. Zeller knows what it’s like to be at the top of scouting reports. When he enters the NBA that won’t be the case, it will give him more room to grow and experiment.

Why Zeller is better than Len

General-Managers in the NBA don’t look at the draft in the same way. Many of them fall into the trap of going for a guy with upside who isn’t good yet, but might be. The draft should be about acquiring assets. The Pelicans need assets and there’s little reason, right now, that Alex Len will ever be an asset.

Cody Zeller can be an impact player. He has skills that will translate into the NBA. He preaches effort and energy alongside his tremendous athletic ability (a wicked combination).

If Dell Demps is smart he’ll look to pick Zeller with the mindset that if things become crowded along the front-line he can always trade for assets that fit him better.

So where is he better? Well…

  • Zeller is a better scorer
  • Better passer
  • Better shooter
  • Better footwork and basic basketball skills
  • Has more steals (more active on defense)
  • Faster, quicker and stronger
  • Less injury prone
  • More experienced
  • More productive
  • More versatile

Len may be a better shot-blocker but that’s pretty much it. They’re pretty much identical rebounders and while Zeller turned the ball over more (14.5% TOV) than Len (13.1%) he did so with a higher usage-rate (26.5% vs. 22.8%).

I’ll leave you with this, Cody Zeller is a proven commodity with skills automatically translating into the NBA; Alex Len does not. You might hope that Len turns into a dominant shot-blocker but in reality he’s injury prone and hasn’t had any surmountable experience.

Combine these translatable skills with surprisingly athletic attributes and the better prospect is blindingly clear.

Pelican fans I implore you to be the wise fans that you are and vote Cody Zeller.

You can follow James on Twitter here: @jsgrayson and Cody Zeller here: @CodyZeller

The Case for Alex Len (Pellissier)

Projecting a prospect’s impact upon the NBA is contingent on understanding what he does well, what he can grow to do well, and what he will struggle to do.  Let’s start with what we know about Cody Zeller. He was an excellent post player at Indiana, possessing the coordination, mobility, and size necessary to create his own shot in the post at an efficient level. There is no doubting that Zeller is a fluid athlete and possesses good touch near the basket. But is that going to translate to the NBA?

My guess is no, and here’s why:

1) He may be 7 feet tall, but he has short arms. It may sound nitpicky, but it matters. When was the last time you saw an NBA player head the ball into the goal? Zeller isn’t a seal. His standing reach is his release point, and his standing reach is 8’10, which is pretty pedestrian. His wingspan is also subpar for his height.

Standing Reaches

Kenneth Faried- 9’0
Derrick Williams- 9’0
Tyler Hansbrough- 8’10
Cody Zeller- 8’10

Zeller is a 4 at the NBA level and he is basically an averaged sized one when arms are factored in. Kenneth Faried is considered undersized at the 4 (though maybe he should just be considered average), Derrick Williams is a combo forward, and Hansbrough faced  “undersized” critiques coming out of college; each of these guys is just as long as Zeller. If the Pelicans draft Zeller, you may be drafting a “7 footer,” but you’re really just drafting a fairly averaged sized power forward, and yeah, we definitely need another power forward.

2) He’s a very fast player and can jump high with a running start.. but don’t expect him to regularly size defenders up, spin, and dunk on them in the post. He isn’t particularly explosive in small areas, and relies on having momentum to finish over people. How many times did you see Cody Zeller dunk over people in college? Exactly.

3) He bench-pressed well at the combine, but WHO CARES? If he isn’t strong in games, it doesn’t matter if he can bench 5000 pounds. Actually, 5000 would be pretty good. Also, upper body strength is just part of the battle for position. Establishing post position requires leg strength, and that’s not tested by bench pressing. So what does Jonathan Givony of DraftExpress say about his strength?

 “..he still gets pushed around quite a bit inside by more physical opponents. Does he have the lower body strength needed to establish position inside the paint and score in the low-post the way he did in college? Opposing teams seemingly recognized that he doesn’t love contact and tried to rough him up quite a bit as the year moved on, which he didn’t really respond to in the best way, especially in Indiana’s biggest games.”

So let’s do a quick synopsis here: Zeller won’t play as tall as his listed height, isn’t nearly as explosive as his combine numbers would have you believe, and despite lifting well at the combine, gets bullied around in the paint by bigger opponents.. and you expect that to get easier in the NBA?

This isn’t to say Zeller doesn’t have strong points. He can run the floor and has excellent dexterity for a young big. After his freshman year, scouts were drooling over his potential pick and pop capability in the NBA, but he only took jumpers at Indiana on seldom occasions. “Even when open, he doesn’t always look entirely comfortable shooting from distance” (Givony).

Here’s the skinny: I believe Zeller will be a successful NBA player. But his NBA game will likely be a lot of pick and pop/transition play, and we already have 2 guys who can do those things (and more) in Anthony Davis and Ryan Anderson. Jason Smith also does the same things that Zeller does at this point of his career.

Like I said last week, it is essential to understand what kinds of players fit with Anthony Davis. Both Monty Williams and the organization have expressed their concern with Davis putting on too much weight. My guess is that Davis will hover around 240 pounds once he has fully grown into his frame. With that in mind, the Pelicans need a big with true size who can hold his own in the paint. This type of player would fit excellently with Davis and Anderson: if the opponent goes big, the Pelicans can counter with a big lineup (Davis/Len) or stretch the floor with Davis and Anderson. Zeller is not a good fit next to Davis or Anderson.

Transitioning to Len

I guess the easiest place to start would be by pointing out that Alex Len is the highest-rated prospect on DraftExpress’s rankings this year. Yes, #1, higher than Nerlens Noel, Victor Oladipo, etc.. and in case you were wondering, Cody Zeller is 10th.

Big men have a steeper learning curve than their guard counterparts, but the Pelicans are the perfect situation for Alex Len to thrive in. Monty Williams was very careful all year with our franchise foundation, rookie Anthony Davis. Davis was heralded as one of the top prospects in the last decade. So what do you think he’s going to do with Alex Len? The Pelicans already sport two excellent frontcourt players in Ryan Anderson and Anthony Davis. There is no need to rush Len’s development, so he can come in and contribute in the ways he’s ready without feeling the expectation of carrying the franchise.

Here are some statistics gathered from Statsheet. The only statistic not from Statsheet is from Hoop-Math (FG% @ Rim).

ORB %   DRB%    Block % Assist %  TO%  FG% @ Rim   Points/40
Alex Len   13.1     19.3       7.9     7.7   15.6         73.0        18.0
Cody Zeller   12.2     18.7       4.3     9.4   17.1         66.0        22.4


Rebounding: Len is better on both the offensive and defensive boards than Zeller. Rebounding percentage calculates how many of the available rebounds a player collected, and thereby removes the biases of pace, minutes, and opposing field goal % (you can’t rebound a made shot).

Size: Statistics at the percentage level remove biases for other statistics, too. The notion that Alex Len is very raw and unready to contribute at the NBA level is a misconception. This much is certain: size translates, and Len has it. Remember Zeller’s short arms? Len stands an inch taller and has longer arms, sporting an impressive 7’3.5 wingspan. Len has legitimate NBA center size, and he’s also reported to be a sturdy 255 pounds.  Cody Zeller weighed in at 230.

Points: I also chose to post some statistics that favor Zeller, but I did so to show that the gap that Zeller advocates say exists in the skill sets between these two players is much smaller than they would have you believe. Zeller scored more per game, but keep in mind that Maryland’s guards were notoriously bad at feeding Len the ball, and 18 points per 40 minutes hardly screams “raw.”

Shot-blocking: In case you live in a cave and haven’t watched the playoffs, it is important to understand just how important it is to have bigs who can contest shots at the rim. We already have one in Anthony Davis, but how awesome would it be to have TWO guys who can alter shots there? Len is far superior to Zeller in shot-blocking, and considering the difference in size and length between the two, this gap could actually grow wider as they play in the NBA.

Finishing at the Rim: Critics would have you believe that Len is a project and will take time to fully adjust to the NBA, and you know what? They’re right. But big men almost always have a steep learning curve, and Zeller will have the same adjustment issues. But Len, despite being a project, can step in right away and contribute as a pick/roll option, defender, and rebounder. Notice that Len was a noticeably better finisher at the rim, sporting a very impressive FG% of 73, a full 7 percentage points higher than Zeller.

Here is an example of how big the difference is between 73% and 66% at the rim. These are FG% at the rim from some NBA players, taken from HoopData.

FG% at Rim
Alex Len Range        ~(73)
Marcin Gortat         72.8
Andre Drummond         72.0
JaVale McGee         71.8
Dwight Howard         70.4
Cody Zeller Range       ~(66)
Fab Melo         66.7
Henry Sims         66.7
Kosta Koufos         66.7
Jermaine O’Neal         66.1
Samuel Dalembert         65.9
Spencer Hawes         65.8

So who would you rather take? The guy who spent a lot of his time near the rim in college and finishes at a very average clip (Zeller), or the 7’1 center who finishes at an excellent clip (Len)? The guy who can’t block shots at the collegiate level (Zeller) or the one who did in college and can in the NBA (Len)? Are you getting tired of these questions???? Then choose the right answer, and that’s Alex Len.

The choice is easy.. Vote Len!

Follow Michael Pellissier on Twitter here. Send him cool tweets and make him look popular. 

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