Why did Tyler Zeller struggle in transition?
When trying to determine the top transition bigs in the league last season, I expected Tyler Zeller’s name to pop up based on his collegiate production. Looking at his rookie season though, Zeller did not get a chance to run in transition as much which took away one of his biggest offensive strengths.
Cleveland was an average team in terms of pace, as they averaged 92.3 possessions per game last season, which ranked 13th in the NBA. While Zeller used 10% of his possession in transition opportunities his last collegiate season, he saw a decrease to only 8.1% his rookie season, according to My Synergy Sports. On these possessions, he averaged 1.09 points per possession (PPP) which is below average for transition opportunities.
When looking at the video, there are a few reasons why Zeller did not find the same success in his rookie season in transition as did while at North Carolina. To break down the first reason, Zeller’s shot chart must be examined. When looking at his shot chart, you can see that he struggled from two point territory outside of the paint.
While at North Carolina, Zeller was either the biggest man on the floor or was the quicker big man (compared to John Henson or James Michael McAdoo), so Zeller was able to be the first big man down the floor and sprint to the rim. When looking at the clips in the Draft Express video above, Zeller was often the first big man down the floor, which let him finish at the rim in transition opportunities.
In his first season with Cleveland, Zeller was paired with Tristan Thompson as they over 60% of Zeller’s minutes had Thompson on the floor at the same time. Zeller had to work with Thompson in transition and Thompson was the rim runner on many transition opportunities which left Zeller to fill the high post area. This caused him to catch the ball in a different position than he was used to in transition opportunities.
When Zeller was the trailer in transition, he was catching the ball near the foul line and looking for his offense. In this clip, Thompson is the first Cavalier big man down the floor with Zeller trailing the play. Kyrie Irving feeds Zeller the ball at the high post but Zeller does not look comfortable creating offense off the dribble on the run from this position.
When catching the ball here, Zeller struggled with creating his offense off the dribble. He could get to the rim but he wasn’t under control enough or confident enough to finish in traffic last season. He has the skills to improve in this area and he will need to focus on finishing off the dribble in transition, as he will be in this position again this season.
If he didn’t try to create off the dribble, Zeller would try the mid range jump shot in transition when he was the trailing big man. As seen from his above shot chart, Zeller was not an efficient shooter from these positions on the floor. He’ll need to improve his mid range jump shooting or his passing skills in these situations, so that the Cavs offense can take advantage of these transition opportunities.
While Zeller struggles as the second big man in transition, he still excels when he is the first big man down the floor. He is able to beat the defense to the rim and is able to finish off the catch or one dribble. This is where he found most of his success in college and he was able to replicate this in Cleveland.
In his second season, Cleveland fans can hope that Zeller improves offensively when catching the ball at the free throw line, especially in transition. He is already an effective player when he is able to run to the rim, as he is quick enough to beat the defense down the floor for the easy finish. Now he needs to work on becoming a strong player starting from the free throw line, either getting to the rim off the dribble and finishing or knocking down the mid range jump shot.