By Anthony Olivieri
Last Thursday, Tyler Zeller was taken with the 17th overall pick in the 2012 NBA Draft. Cody Zeller no doubt hopes he doesn’t follow in his brother’s footsteps.
It’s not that Cody, a rising sophomore center at Indiana, doesn’t want to be drafted just like Tyler, who entered the draft out of North Carolina. He just hopes that he’s not selected in a similar slot at next year’s event.
You see, Cody Zeller is the prospective top overall pick in the 2013 NBA Draft, which, by the way, is 359 days away. That’s just enough time for Cody to see his stock drop.
Red flags, anyone?
Calm down, Indiana fans and Zeller supporters. I’m not suggesting young Zeller has a future in the infirmary or attempting to drum up some sort of negative momentum that will follow the Hoosiers’ big man.
Consider Jared Sullinger and Perry Jones, who were thought to be consensus selections in the top half of the lottery in countless mock drafts – mostly during and after their freshman seasons at Ohio State and Baylor, respectively, in 2010-11. Both decided to come back to campus for Round 2.
Sullinger was considered a back-to-the-basket big man with a polished post game who could get his shot whenever he wanted. In some old mocks, the Buckeyes’ forward was considered a possibility for the top overall pick in the ’11 draft.
But he dropped to No. 21 overall in the actual 2012 event, where the Boston Celtics – fresh out of the Eastern Conference finals – nabbed a player that could have been a consolation prize to Anthony Davis, at least in the minds of some a year earlier.
As for Jones, he slid to No. 28 overall where the Oklahoma City Thunder grabbed him with just two picks remaining in the first round after their selection. Jones nearly went from lottery prize to second-round demise – a player who would have been without a guaranteed contract.
So what went on with the pair?
First, it’s the effect of lofty expectations. Both Sullinger and Jones put up almost exactly the same statistics in their two seasons in college. But those who evaluate big-time college prospects see consistency as deficiency. A player’s stock – at least that of one who is expected to be taken in the Top 5 – will take a hit if he doesn’t drastically improve from one year to the next.
Sullinger developed an injury red flag that sent many NBA general managers running for the hills. According to reports, there were several doctors who consulted NBA teams to pass on Sullinger because of a balky back that they feared could affect him on the court.
Jones, for his part, fell in the draft because of what could be a long-term knee problem, according to a report from ESPN.com’s Chad Ford. I don’t know the extent of either ailment, or if they’re serious enough to impact the players on the court, just that it no doubt affected them at the draft.
I am not suggesting a hidden injury to Zeller will be uncovered. But the Indiana big man must be a little nervous that another year in college will give evaluators enough time to pick his game apart.
Let’s face it, both Sullinger and Jones – before reports of possible career-slowing injuries – were being criticized. There were questions about Sullinger’s athleticism that grew louder during a midseason slump, and Jones had been given the draft death null: A questionable motor.
As for Zeller, he has returned to Bloomington to play a second season for the Hoosiers, who are the preseason top team in the country, according to early prognostications.
But team success won’t necessarily prop up Zeller; Sullinger’s Buckeyes made the Final Four on the back of his combined 42 points and 18 rebounds in the Sweet 16 and Elite Eight. Jones’ Baylor Bears went on to the Elite Eight in one of the finest seasons in school history.
Both ended up in the back end of the first round. Perception will become reality next June.
So there’s chance that Cody Zeller, the skilled 6-foot-11 center who averaged 15.5 points and 6.4 rebounds as a true freshman, will be the most talented of the Zeller brothers, a group that also includes Luke – an ex-Notre Dame forward-center.
But there’s also the possibility that the youngest Zeller gets judged on the high bar that he has set for himself, which allows any possible stumble or imperfection to be magnified by scouts that start questioning if he is a great athlete or prod his body for any deficiencies.
It happened to former USC golden boy Matt Leinart, a QB taken with the 10th overall selection in the 2006 NFL Draft after he likely would have been the top pick a year earlier. Leinart, according to many reports, just wanted one more year to be the big man on the campus at USC.
While his circumstances are different, Cody Zeller’s recent comments to WDRB.com reveal that his decision to return to IU came from a similar place as from where Leinart’s reportedly had.
“My final decision was that I wasn’t ready to grow up yet,” Zeller said, according to the report. “Everyone tells me that college will be the best years of my life.
“I’m not ready to pay bills, buy a house, start paying rent and everything else. There was no reason for me to leave. We’re going to have high goals this year. We’ll see what happens.”
The fact Zeller admits that and didn’t just chase NBA millions is great. I just hope it doesn’t cost him in the future.
Anthony Olivieri is the managing editor of LostLettermen.com. His column appears each week.