INDEPENDENCE — The Cavaliers aren’t predicting Tyler Zeller will be a star, but they are confident he’ll be in the NBA for many years.
The 7-foot-½ Zeller was acquired when Dallas took him with the 17th pick in the NBA Draft on Thursday and traded him to Cleveland for the 24th, 33rd and 34th choices. He was the Atlantic Coast Conference Player of the Year and a second-team Associated Press All-American as a senior at North Carolina.
“Tyler is a player who is going to be in this league a long time,” Cavs coach Byron Scott said Friday at Cleveland Clinic Courts, where the team introduced Zeller and No. 4 pick Dion Waiters of Syracuse. “Dominant? I don’t know. But I think he’s going to be a guy who gives you a double-double on a consistent basis.”
Zeller was considered a late lottery pick in most mock drafts, but fell to No. 17. Despite all his college accolades, he was the fourth Tar Heels player chosen, after small forward Harrison Barnes (No. 7 to Golden State), point guard Kendall Marshall (13th to Phoenix) and power forward John Henson (14th to Milwaukee).
“I’ll use anything as motivation,” a smiling Zeller said.
Though he played four years at North Carolina and is listed at 247 pounds, the 22-year-old had very narrow shoulders and a slight build when he was introduced to the local media.
Scott, however, is confident Zeller will work his way into Cleveland’s big-man rotation as a rookie. Zeller figures to share time with center Anderson Varejao and power forward Tristan Thompson, with Samardo Samuels also getting a few minutes.
“He’s the most complete (big man) and most ready to play in the NBA right now,” Scott said in reference to the centers in the 2012 draft.
General manager Chris Grant loves to talk about the franchise’s “culture” and the front office doing its “due diligence” on all players, but the Cavs not only drafted Waiters and Zeller without personally working them out, they didn’t even get a chance to interview them.
Grant said the organization had numerous contacts and friendships on the coaching staffs at Syracuse and North Carolina and did a lot of interviews with people on those campuses.
“We felt really comfortable these were the two right decisions for our organization,” he said.
When Waiters showed up at the NBA Draft Combine in Chicago, he was in the middle of doing interviews with teams when agent Rob Pelinka told him to pack up his things and get ready to head home to Philadelphia.
The 20-year-old Waiters agreed to skip the workout portion of the combine, but was having such a good time going through the interview process, he asked Pelinka if he could first finish doing them. Pelinka, whose clients include Kevin Durant and Kobe Bryant, said no.
“He’s been doing it a long time,” Waiters said. “I knew he had my back. I knew he knew what was right for me. I just had to listen to him.”
Pelinka represented Carlos Boozer when the Cavs, under then owner Gordon Gund and general manager Jim Paxson, let the power forward become an unrestricted free agent because he was being underpaid as a second-round draft pick. Boozer ended up signing with Utah.
As part of the trade that brought them Zeller, the Cavs also acquired 6-5 swingman Kelenna Azubuike from Dallas. The 28-year-old native of England, who was in camp with the Cavs at the beginning of his career after playing at Kentucky, averaged 14.4 points for Golden State in 2008-09, but has appeared in just 12 NBA games over the past three seasons due to a serious knee injury. The Cavs aren’t sure about his physical condition or future with the team.
The Cavs made no official announcement, but they strongly hinted they would extend a $1.2 million qualifying offer to starting small forward Alonzo Gee, which will keep him a restricted free agent and allow the team to match any offer sheet he receives.
Grant wouldn’t say if the Cavs would give qualifying offers to center Semih Erden and forward Luke Harangody by the Friday deadline. If the Cavs were to give either a qualifying offer, they might accept it on the spot, figuring it would be the best contract they would get for 2012-13. If they don’t get qualifying offers from the Cavs, they become unrestricted free agents on Sunday.
Waiters will wear the same No. 3 with the Cavs that he wore at Syracuse. Zeller, who wore No. 44 at North Carolina, will wear No. 40.
As the No. 4 pick, Waiters’ contract will start at $3.106 million. Picked at No. 17, Zeller will earn a maximum of $1.303 million in his first season.
Contact Rick Noland at (330) 721-4061 or firstname.lastname@example.org.