Tyler Zeller among league's most underrated players?

Seven months ago, Tyler Zeller was trade filler, valued simply as a shedded contract that allowed the Cavaliers to bring LeBron James and Kevin Love to Cleveland.

Things have changed a bit since then.

The Celtics acquired Zeller, shooting guard Marcus Thornton and a Cleveland first-round pick last July 10 in a three-team deal with the Cavs and Nets. Though Zeller averaged 6.9 points in 147 games over two years and was a workable big man in Cleveland, he was hardly looked at as a building block. He figured to be a decent backup post player who could be moved again if the right deal arose.

While he's not a budding superstar by any means, Zeller's improved play in green has made him much more reliable than trade fodder. Zeller has started 26 games this year, averaging 9.2 points on 56.9 percent shooting. Per 36 minutes, the North Carolina product is giving the Celtics 16.8 points and 9.6 rebounds. He was recently replaced by Brandon Bass in the starting lineup, but his improved play has drawn the attention of national pundits.

In his article detailing the NBA's most overlooked players, ESPN's Amin Elhassan put the third-year player on his All-Underrated Team:

Zeller has blossomed on the offensive end in Boston, where he has been able to take advantage of extra touches, particularly on the low block. When Zeller was at North Carolina, I admired his array of Antawn Jamison-esque unconventional flip shots around the basket, and he's used them to help him be an excellent finisher out of the pick-and-roll despite not having a ton of explosion or lift. He also has developed a nice free-throw-line-extended jumper, which can allow him to shallow roll and pull up for the open jumper.

Zeller's hook shot has become a legitimate weapon, as he's making 49 percent of his attempts this year. As Elhassan mentioned, he's gotten much better in the pick-and-roll and pick-and-pop game and is connecting on 77.1 percent when he shoots without dribbling.

While he's not an elite midrange shooter, Zeller has at least shown the ability to keep defenses honest, particularly along both baselines. He rarely lets fire beyond 10 feet, as 237 of his 262 shots (90.5 percent) have come within three yards of the hoop:

After a sizzling start, Zeller has seen his field goal percentage drop off recently, and the Rajon Rondo trade on Dec. 18 certainly has something to do with that. Rondo's savant-like passing ability got every Celtic easy buckets, but Zeller in particular benefited. With Rondo in Boston, Zeller shot 63.6 percent. In the 18 games since, he's made 51.4 percent of his shots, including just 45.1 percent in January. He's been assisted on 80.5 percent of his field goals this year, and removing an elite distributor like Rondo was bound to hurt his efficiency.

Increased defensive attention certainly plays a role here as well - Zeller's early season successes have forced opponents to respect him more and not sag off as much to help on drives.

Zeller isn't an elite defender - he has just 26 blocks on the year and the Celtics allow more points per 100 possessions with him on the court (105.5) than when he's not (101.7). Opponents shoot 45.7 percent from the floor when Zeller defends the shot.

But Zeller is a hard worker who's greatly increased his strength in the post and is serviceable corralling ball handlers in pick-and-roll situations. He plays sound, fundamental D, which isn't going to lead to a ton of blocks or steals. But he rarely loses track of his man and allows an easy layup or dunk.

Zeller is already 25 years old and his limited athletic ability puts a ceiling on how high he can rise. But he brings several valuable assets to the table - he hustles relentlessly, is a weapon in the pick-and-roll and is a heady, attentive defender. This is his first season getting extended playing time, and his improvement has shown as the year has gone on. Zeller may not be one of the core pieces of the Celtics' rebuild moving forward, but his enhanced play this season suggests he could be a starting center for a contender in the future.

If nothing less, as Elhassan suggests, it's time to give Zeller his due. In a matter of months he's gone from an afterthought to one of Boston's more reliable players. How he performs over the rest of the season will help determine exactly where he fits in the Celtics' long-term plans.

Photo credit: David Zalubowski, Associated Press Images