Is Tyler Zeller the most improved player from the 2012 draft class?
Recently, Tom Haberstroh of ESPN provided his scouting reports for the current Celtics roster. In describing Tyler Zeller, Haberstroh wrote that "few players from the 2012 draft have improved more than Zeller."
This was one of the more thought-provoking parts of Haberstroh's piece, if only because it seemed so out of place given how little recognition and attention Zeller receives, especially in comparison to other NBA talent from the 2012 draft. It was also surprising given how little value the rest of the league seemed to place on Zeller, as it was just last summer the Cavaliers traded him to the Celticswith a future first-round draft pick rather than for.
If Haberstroh is right, not only would this be seen as a huge accomplishment for Zeller, but it would also be seen as one for Danny Ainge, who could then say he extracted a future first and the most improved player from the 2012 draft for nothing. Look, I understand winning 'most improved player' is not as impressive as MVP, but neither is easy to win. For example, as it relates to the NBA's most improved player award, the last five winners were Jimmy Butler, Goran Dragic, Paul George, Ryan Anderson, and Kevin Love.
To reduce the total number of players considered, I eliminated anyone outside the top 20 in total minutes since 2012, as well as anyone who failed to demonstrate continued statistical improvement on a year-to-year basis. The result was the following list of 10 candidates for the 2012 draft class' most improved player award: Tyler Zeller; Damian Lillard; Harrison Barnes; Bradley Beal; Andre Drummond; Khris Middleton; Michael Kidd-Gilchrist; Terrence Ross; Jae Crowder; and Draymond Green. So, is Tyler Zeller to the 2012 NBA draft what Jimmy Butler was to the 2014-2015 NBA season? Let's find out.
PER 36 MINUTES
Zeller showed consistent improvement every year in almost all of the significant statistical metrics, including field goal percentage (+10), rebounds (+2), assists (+0.7), and points per game (+6.5). In 2014, Zeller had his best statistical per 36 minute season, as he averaged 17.3 PPG, 9.7 RPG, 2.4 APG, and 1.1 BPG.
The most valuable metrics here are the offensive and defensive ratings. The offensive rating estimates how many points a team scores with player X on the floor per 100 possessions, and the defensive rating estimates how many points they allow with player X on the floor per 100 possessions.
Zeller's offensive and defensive ratings improved every year. His offensive rating was 102 points per 100 possessions in 2012, 112 points in 2013, and 119 points in 2014. His defensive rating was 110 points per 100 possessions in 2012, 107 points in 2013, and 105 points in 2014.
For Zeller, his most impressive improvement may be his WS/48, which estimates the number of wins a player contributes to his team over 48 minutes, i.e. the amount of minutes in a NBA game. Zeller's WS/48 was 0.048 in 2012, 0.120 in 2013, and .179 in 2014, which represents an increase of nearly 400%. The only other player who came close to that level of improvement was Draymond Green, who actually exceeded it.
Draymond Green has been the 2012 draft class' most improved player, but Tyler Zeller is the second. There are two reasons why Green's career progression looks more impressive than Zeller's: (1) Green had more room for improvement since he barely played his rookie year while Zeller started 55 games; and (2) Green's 2014 advanced stats, which were aided by the championship season the Golden State Warriors had.
Regardless of who you believe would win this award, it is clear Haberstroh was right to say few players have improved more than Zeller from the 2012 draft class. The steady increase in production over the life of his short career in almost every significant statistical metric is what impresses me most. It demonstrates how committed he is to coming back every season better than the last, which is an encouraging sign for Danny Ainge and Celtic fans as the rumored extension talks continue. At the same time, be careful what you wish for. As surprising as this may sound, regardless of the statistical metric used, Zeller's player-based numbers in 2014 were better than Green's, who just signed a max deal this past summer.
Question for Readers: who do you think is the most improved player from the 2012 draft? Green? Zeller? Someone else? Please share your thoughts!