Luke Zeller, one of three brothers to earn the prestigious Mr. Basketball title during his Indiana schoolboy days, was undrafted after a steady but unspectacular four-year collegiate career at Notre Dame. He began his professional career with the Shiga Lakestars in 2009.
And now, three years later, he’s a Phoenix Suns player.
How cool is that?
Yes, absolutely, it’s a great reminder that perseverance and dedication to one’s chosen profession can pay off in a big way.
The Suns open the season against the visiting Golden State Warriors, including former Tokyo Apache post player Jeremy Tyler, on Halloween. For Zeller, it will be an opportunity to demonstrate what he’s done over the past several weeks in preseason camp.
“I’m able to stretch the floor and play basketball with a high IQ and fit in with the team,” the 211-cm Zeller told The Arizona Republic’s Suns beat writer, Paul Coro, in a recent interview. “I can be a great teammate whether it’s making an extra pass or sliding on defense.”
Zeller is 25 years old, making him one of the NBA’s older rookies this season. For his family, which hails from Washington, Indiana, this season has the potential to be incredibly memorable from start to finish. After all, the Suns’ No. 40 will be one of two Zeller boys beginning their NBA careers in 2012.
The 213-cm Tyler Zeller, a University of North Carolina product, was selected 17th overall in the 2012 NBA Draft and plays for the Cleveland Cavaliers.
Their proud parents, Steve and Lorri Zeller, will also keep busy following the hardwood exploits of their youngest son, 213-cm college sophomore Cody, who happens to suit up for the preseason No.1-ranked Indiana Hoosiers.
Rebounding ace Gary Hamilton, a former Shiga Lakestars and Rizing Fukuoka standout, is excited about the opportunities the Zeller brothers have to compete at the highest level.
“That’s a blessing,” Hamilton said recently. “I would like to see all three Zeller brothers in the NBA this time next year.”
The elder brother is a fundamentally sound player and sees the big picture when breaking down the game, always looking for ways to involve his teammates.
“Being able to stretch the floor gives guys opportunities to drive to the basket with open lanes,” Luke Zeller told The Arizona Republic. “I don’t try to force every shot I get. On defense, I talk and communicate. I’m in the right place at the right time. It’s more important to play winning basketball.
“I’m more concerned about my team more than my stats and that shows sometimes.”
In Zeller’s bj-league debut on Oct. 3, 2009, he scored 11 points in a victory over the Kyoto Hannaryz. He averaged 8.7 points and 7.4 rebounds in 48 games (24 starts) for Shiga. His season-high point total was 20 while playing for then-Lakestars coach Bob Pierce.
Seeing Zeller reach the NBA after spending time with Naglis Adakris in the Lithuanian League and the NBA Development League over the past two seasons, provides a healthy dose of satisfaction for Pierce, now in his second year as the Sendai 89ers bench boss.
“I’m proud of the fact that we were able to give him his first chance as a pro with Shiga in the bj-league, and to put him with quality big guys like Gary Hamilton, who led the league in rebounding that season, Ray Schafer, and importantly, with Big Bashi (Takatoshi Ishibashi), our assistant coach,” Pierce told Hoop Scoop.
“But this is really about Luke putting in the work over the next two seasons in the D-League, and taking advantage of the excellent coaching there along with the chance to work on skills specific to the NBA.
“The NBA often needs specialists who can help a team fill a particular need or role, and Luke was ready when that chance came. Now it’s up to him to continue to put in that hard work. I’m sure there will be lots of fans in Japan hoping that he succeeds.”
Zeller was a stellar student-athlete at Washington High School, having a perfect 4.0 grade-point average for four years.
“He made our jobs as parents a lot easier,” Lorri Zeller was quoted as saying in a Lexington (Kentucky) Herald-Leader feature story in December 2011. “(Tyler and Cody) just followed suit.”
Luke’s uncle, Al Eberhard, a 198-cm forward, played for the Detroit Pistons from 1974-78, giving him a natural role model in the sport.
But his path to the NBA has not been easy. In fact, he’s had a few breaks along the way, including fracturing his nose twice last season, the first time in a D-League contest on the eve of the San Antonio Spurs training camp. While with the Austin Toros, the Spurs’ D-League affiliate, Zeller averaged 24.9 minutes, 9.1 points and 5.3 rebounds in 24 games, his season cut short after suffering another nose injury.
This preseason, Zeller has added size and a perimeter presence to the Suns’ frontcourt. In decades past, a player his size would be expected to be a back-to-the-basket cog in the middle, but Zeller has a knack for stepping outside and knocking down 3-pointers.
In that regard, he can give coach Alvin Gentry’s squad another long-range scoring option. (Channing Frye has thrived in that role and made 454 3s in his first seven seasons in the league, all but 20 of them in the past three seasons with Phoenix. He is currently sidelined with an enlarged heart.)
In three preseason games, Zeller’s 3-point numbers were far from spectacular — 5-for-18 — but he’s getting acclimated to his new surroundings and his role on the Suns.
Zeller could earn $473,604, the minimum salary for an NBA rookie, this season. Sure, it’s a lot less money than LeBron James’ $17.5 million salary for 2012-13, but the big fellow’s stayed focused and patient while pursuing his dream.
“Luke has earned this chance through lots of hard work and perseverance,” Pierce concluded. “He made the wise choice of being born into the Zeller family. . . . Although perhaps his best decision was to marry Hope, whose support and understanding probably made this opportunity possible.”
There’s plenty of depressing news day in and day out, but Zeller’s NBA debut is a feel-good story for sports fans and another reminder that the bj-league, despite its many shortcomings, can still be a springboard for success at the highest level.