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.



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