San Antonio Spurs: Tyler Zeller suddenly has a big opportunity

Another frontcourt injury for the San Antonio Spurs has thrust journeyman center Tyler Zeller into the Orlando bubble spotlight.

A month ago, Tyler Zeller appeared to be firmly on the outside looking in, hoping for another shot at playing in the NBA. The San Antonio Spurs are about to give the big man more than a simple opportunity.

The Spurs decided to sign Zeller in June after LaMarcus Aldridge was ruled out for the restart, despite the fact the 30-year-old hasn’t played in a single game this season. They could’ve signed DeMarcus Cousins – who is still available – but Zeller was the choice of the front office, expected to slide into a bench role.

That premise changed on Wednesday when the Spurs announced they would be without Trey Lyles for the restart as well. The starting center was ruled out for the remainder of the year due to a bout with appendicitis, leaving the frontcourt even thinner than before.

Suddenly, Zeller could be in line to play major minutes for the Spurs. That wasn’t the plan when the team signed him in June.

The heaviest playing time increase is going to fall into the lap of Jakob Poeltl. He started 10 games this season but averaged just 16.6 minutes per game in his second season with the team following his acquisition from the Toronto Raptors. Poeltl will immediately be elevated to a starting role for the restart.

The rest of the frontcourt depth chart is a question mark, though. Rudy Gay has played almost all of his minutes at power forward this season, but his more natural fit is at small forward. Chimezie Metu has spent most of his season in the G-League. The same is true of Drew Eubanks. So why can’t Zeller be the man of the moment for the Spurs in Orlando?

Zeller does have something Gregg Popovich can’t teach – height. Zeller is the second seven-footer on the roster, joining Poeltl. Zeller can hang inside the paint and battle for buckets and rebounds.

His career averages aren’t necessarily something to write home about, but they’re also not bad for a middling NBA veteran. Zeller has averaged 7.0 points and 4.4 rebounds per game over his career, averaging as many as 10.2 points per game back when he was a starter for the Boston Celtics in 2014-15.

Zeller’s most recent NBA action came in a four-game stint with the Memphis Grizzlies at the end of the 2018-19 season. While those games didn’t matter much for Memphis, Zeller actually acquitted himself fairly well. He sported a positive plus/minus in three of the four games, scoring between 8 and 15 points in each. He played in at least 17 minutes in each, demonstrating some durability.

The ceiling on Zeller isn’t particularly high, despite his height. The odds of him delivering an MVP performance over the next eight games are very low and there shouldn’t be any expectations of him becoming a top-level performer for the team, especially if he still lacks a three-point shot.

But Tyler Zeller is going to play significant minutes during this Orlando restart. The San Antonio Spurs should embrace a player with a chip on his shoulder and a determination to find his way back into the league.