BOSTON -- It took 27 minutes of floor time for Tyler Zeller to shift from the Boston Celtics' starting center to the side of a milk carton. As Boston's first unit struggled at the onset of the regular season, Celtics coach Brad Stevens shuffled his rotation and Zeller, fair or not, was suddenly the odd-man out in an overstocked frontcourt.
Zeller had logged only 14 minutes of floor time during Boston's five-game stretch before Friday's win over the Atlanta Hawks, which included consecutive DNPs this week. Then Stevens dusted Zeller off in the second quarter against Atlanta, tasked him with guarding All-Star center Al Horford, and Zeller responded with six quality minutes before resuming his role as sideline supporter.
You can tell it pains Stevens to not be able to play Zeller. This is a 25-year-old 7-footer who started 59 games for Boston last season. But the Celtics brought in veterans Amir Johnson and David Lee; Jared Sullinger has been the team's best player since the start of the season; and Kelly Olynyk is a plus/minus darling who helps Boston's second-unit thrive. For a Boston team that likes to go small, there is little space for a fifth big.
Thus, Zeller must deal with bite-sized shifts until an injury or opportunity presents itself.
"Tyler's a really good player. We just have a lot of bigs," said Stevens. "I don't know how else to say it. We haven't shot it great, so you want to play some guys that can stretch the floor and be guarded when the floor is stretched. And that leaves at least one person out.
"And I don't know that it will always be Tyler. In fact, I see him playing a huge role for our team and he knows that. But, nonetheless, it's really hard to deal with. But we've won three of the last four games and he hasn't played as much. But he'll help us win three out of four in some other stretch and he'll play a lot."
The way Zeller has handled this situation has made it a positive for the Celtics. While some players might have moped or tuned out, the easy-going Zeller never allowed the situation to impact his work ethic. And that's now set a standard for a Boston team that believes it runs 15 deep and will see similar rotation issues crop up over the course of the 2015-16 campaign.
Zeller has become the model that Stevens can reference when other players don't get their number called on a regular basis. How can others complain when they see the way Zeller has handled himself?
"Every day I see Tyler, Tyler is doing conditioning because he’s not getting the minutes that he normally gets," said Sullinger, who produced his third consecutive double-double on Friday. "He’s lifting, he’s constantly in the gym working on his game, and that’s a big-time hats off to Tyler because, him going from starting to sometimes not even thought about then he’s thrown into [Friday's] game ... Tyler was ready and that’s being a pro's pro."
Zeller showed some early rust on Friday -- leaving Horford open for a jumper after straying to help on penetration, then turning the ball over at the other end leading to a layup for Atlanta -- but he eventually settled in. A little dribble drive from the high post drew defenders before feeding Lee for a layup, then Zeller had a couple of nice sequences protecting the rim on the other end.
Midway through the second quarter, Zeller got the ball on the baseline with a mismatch while working against Kyle Korver. He quickly put up a fading half-hook that dropped while being fouled. (Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge, sitting courtside, pumped his fist in appreciation.) Near the end of his six-minute shift, a driving Johnson delivered a little pocket pass for a Zeller two-handed slam. His final line: five points (on 2-of-2 shooting), 2 rebounds, and an assist over 6:17. The Celtics were plus-4 during his floor time.
Zeller had the best offensive rating on the team during the preseason, but the Celtics weren't able to maintain those numbers into the regular season. (Boston is averaging 91.5 points per 100 possessions with Zeller on the floor, or 7.5 points lower than their already bottom-third-of-the-league offensive rating.) His defensive rating of 109.2 is worst on the team among regulars (Avery Bradley is closest, but still 6.3 points better).
Of course, Zeller's on-court sample is much too small to read much into. His playing time has been hindered in part by the way other bigs have paired nicely with certain backcourt combinations. But he's still only a sprained ankle away from re-elevating to a key role.
In the interim, Zeller has scored major points with his coaches for the way he's handled his situation. All by simply accepting that his minutes could spike just as quickly as they disappeared. And one thing you know now is he'll be ready when they do.