Zeller scoring with surprising efficiency

The most efficient offensive player in the entire NBA? That honor belonged to Boston Celtics reserve center Tyler Zeller entering Sunday’s action.

Sure, it’s a small sample size, but Zeller seemingly has created points every time he has touched the ball this season. In fact, Synergy Sports has a metric called score percentage that measures the percent of possessions finished that result in at least one point, and Zeller is at a ridiculous 86.4 percent -- nearly 10 percentage points better than the nearest competitor.

That’s what happens when you’re shooting 85.7 percent from the field (12-of-14), limiting turnovers and getting to the line with regularity. Zeller is averaging a league-best 1.636 points per play finished, per Synergy data. For context, that’s 0.368 points higher than the league-leading mark of last season, posted by Dallas’ Brandan Wright. (Wright is second behind Zeller at 1.515 PPP this season).

Look beyond the numbers and here’s what it means: After some early struggles carving out his role -- particularly with Boston leaning on three-guard lineups at times -- Zeller is on his way to establishing himself as an important bench presence.

Zeller is Boston's only healthy pure center and has shown an ability to contribute while running the floor and finishing in the pick-and-roll. Celtics coach Brad Stevens even used the 7-foot Zeller as a defensive-minded substitution in recent games, hoping to counter the size of the Indiana Pacers and Chicago Bulls.

"I asked Tyler [on Friday] if he's ever been subbed in for defense and out for offense in his life,” Stevens said. “And he said no. He followed that up with a big smile.

“He's playing great, and he's getting a better feel for us offensively. But defensively is where his presence is most felt right now because we need his size and his work on the glass.”

Zeller tops the team in both defensive rebound rate (23 percent) and overall rebound percentage (16.5). What’s more, he has posted seven assists to only one turnover, showcasing an ability to pass around the basket.

“The one thing that he does like the other [bigs] -- he really passes,” Stevens said. After running down some of his more noteworthy feeds from a recent game, Stevens joked, “The one thing that he doesn’t do is shoot it to the [3-point line], but we’ve got a lot of guys who can do that.”

Stevens has wrestled early in the season with ways to get Zeller on the court more. Some bigger opposing front lines have created opportunities, while the injury to Marcus Smart could mean Boston leans on bigger lineups for a bit.

Zeller, acquired from the Cleveland Cavaliers in a three-team swap in July, has quickly learned that Boston guards are going to find him going to the basket. On a team full of pick-and-poppers, Zeller is the rare big who passers know is going at the rim -- and probably going to finish or get fouled if the pass arrives.

In fact, after missing his first layup attempt on opening night, Zeller has since gone 10-for-10 inside the restricted area. None of his made baskets have included a single dribble; he just catches the ball and goes up with it.

When Zeller arrived, team brass cautioned against anointing him the much-needed rim protector. He is not going to block a lot of shots (two in 73 minutes), but he does a decent job getting vertical. His 18 fouls are the second highest on the team; Kelly Olynyk has 23 in 162 minutes of floor time.

Stevens’ recent praise notwithstanding, Zeller won’t draw too much gushing about his defense, but the team clearly believes he can make strides with more floor time.

And if he produces to the levels he’s shown through six games, the Celtics will find plenty of floor time for him.