And when a season has gone as North Carolina’s has, his effort and production against a quality front line is a positive Carolina can take away from a game in which it played well in spurts, but blew a 13-point lead in being eliminated on the opening night of the ACC Tournament.
There are several reasons one can point to why UNC lost, but Zeller’s play isn’t one of them. He needed to play well, his coaches needed to see him play well, and a puzzled and bewildered fan base needed to see the 7-foot sophomore play well.
“He did some good things today,” Roy Williams said. “He’s worked hard in practice. He’s done some nice things in practice the last 10 days to two weeks. You can ask him, but I think he’s felt more comfortable in practice the last two weeks than he has all year.”
Zeller finished with 17 points and 10 rebounds in 25 minutes of action, which is the most he’s played all season by five minutes. Stagnated by injuries in each of the last two seasons, Zeller hadn’t been the same since returning after missing 11 games with a stress fracture in his right foot earlier this season. In those five games back, Zeller had made just 14 of 35 field goal attempts, averaged under eight points, fewer than five rebounds, and had turned over the ball an ugly 10 times.
But he sent a message against the Yellow Jackets, which possess a formidable front line of likely first-round NBA picks Gani Lawal and Derrick Favors. If Zeller can play well against those guys, then it means the hard work in the weight room and on his game are working and the constant meals are paying off.
“Last year I was 212 pounds and (Favors) would have pushed me around tremendously,” said Zeller of his physical progress. “I’m not like John (Henson), I’m not extremely long. So the weight definitely helped me.”
Zeller’s teammates weren’t surprised he finally broke through. They know what he’s been through and how tough it’s been to waddle for two seasons without ever really establishing a comfort zone. But it hasn’t weakened his psyche one bit.
“Tyler is one of the hardest workers, if not the hardest worker on the team in terms of off the court stuff,” Larry Drew said. “He’s always in the weight room, he’s always getting his exercise, he’s always taking the proper steps in taking care of his body. He is really in tune with himself and he knows what his body wants. He really takes care of himself.”
It sure looked it against the Jackets. One basket came on a tip in that required he sprint the length of the court. He registered a steal denying Favors on the lower block on a play that only a quality athlete working extremely hard could have pulled off.
And when he dove for a loose ball near midcourt in the second half, it was clear that for the first time in many moons Zeller was feeling like a normal player. The jump hooks, rolls to the basket, and running bank shots (from the right side) only solidified his night of normalcy.
“Last year was kind of a blessing when I was hurt because I worked hard and put on 20 pounds, and that helped for this year,” Zeller said. “It takes time to work with your teammates and get all of the detailed things back. It’s a lot of timing issues.”
Zeller, like his teammates, has plenty of work to do before he’s leading the Tar Heels to a typical UNC season. But in a year where there have been few bright spots, the big guy finally gave people reason to consider him a potential force next winter instead of wondering how much the injuries have hampered his development.
It was just one game, but it could have greater meaning down the road.