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COLUMN

Indiana's Zeller leaves 'phenomenal' legacy

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For more on college athletics, follow Pete DiPrimio via Twitter at pdiprimio.

Sophomore forward aims for NBA dream

Thursday, April 11, 2013 - 5:38 am

BLOOMINGTON -- Calbert Cheaney's Big Ten scoring record is safe.

Cody Zeller won't be around to break it.

As the college basketball world knows, Indiana's All-America forward has bigger things in mind than scoring 2,614 points, one more than Cheaney did in his four-year Indiana All-America career that ended 20 years ago.

For the record, Zeller has 1,157 points. He might have passed Cheaney if he had stayed his final two years. But that's not happening. On Wednesday he made official what had long been assumed – he's entering the NBA draft and skipping his last two seasons.

“After a while,” Zeller said, “you kind of know. That's why I was enjoying every minute of (this season). There was a sense of closure with playing my last game at Assembly Hall, with playing in my last (NCAA Tournament). I put everything I had into each practice and game.”

Zeller is ready for the NBA, and he's not. Like every rookie-to-be, he has much to work on, much to improve. The NBA offers wealth and challenges in equal doses, and you have to be tough and poised enough to handle it all.

“I have to work on a lot of things,” Zeller said. “It's a whole different game in the NBA. The game is so much faster. Everyone is so much stronger. A lot of unknowns are coming. That's what makes this jump exciting.”

All the speculating that had Zeller's NBA stock plunging and his lottery-pick prospects fading crashed against the truth as coach Tom Crean heard it from the people who know best -- NBA scouts and general managers.

“It doesn't come down to what is said and written, it's what the decision makers feel and see,” Crean said. “Nothing has come back that was anything less than what we expected, which is he'll be somewhere in that lottery area without getting more specific than that. Everything has been centered on that.”

Zeller is the only player in the country to earn first-team All-America honors for basketball and for academics. He led IU in scoring (16.5 points), rebounding (8.1) and blocked shots (45). His career shooting percentage of 59.1 is the best in school history.

But most important, Zeller helped bring the glory back to IU. The Hoosiers won 12 games the season before he arrived. They won 56 in the two years he played with two Sweet 16 appearances and one outright Big Ten title, their first in 20 years.

He also boosted IU's recruiting. The program once again became a national hot spot for the best players.

“People were looking forward to have an opportunity to play and win with Cody,” Crean said, “and that's what they did. The culture is a moving target. We know where the target is now. Anybody who comes here now is the beneficiary.”

Zeller is 35 credit hours away from getting his business degree. He said he'll wrap that up over two summer sessions, plus some online work.

Not graduating isn't an option.

“Education is important to me.”

Zeller began the season as a favorite to go No. 1 in the NBA draft. No one expects that now, although the consensus is he'll go somewhere in the top 10, perhaps more on his potential -- he's a 7-footer who can handle the ball, pass, shoot (he has three-point range, although he never showed it at IU) and run the floor -- than his performance.

“He could have (left for the draft) a year ago,” Crean said. “He decided he wanted to get better and get closer to his degree. He's done all that. His stock of where he's at is very high with the people who make decision and sign the checks.”

Crean said once NBA teams really get to know Zeller, that stock will rise higher, as much for the quality of his character as for the excellence of his play.

“Once they see him in a setting of workouts, of the weight room, of the competitions they'll put him through, of the interviews, of his focus and maturity, they'll be amazed. He'll impress people because of who he is.”

Zeller's decision came with information most players don't have. He has two brothers with NBA experience. Tyler is a rookie with the Cleveland Cavaliers. Luke played 16 games for the Phoenix Suns this year.

“I talked to them a couple of times each week,” Zeller said. “I know what struggles they went through. I know what to expect. I asked a lot of questions about what the NBA is like.”

Zeller could have been a lottery pick last year, but chose to stay. Why leave now? A big reason, he said, was the fact that the leaders he played with his first two seasons -- Jordan Hulls, Christian Watford, Derek Elston and Victor Oladipo -- won't return. Hulls, Watford and Elston have used up their college eligibility. Oladipo has given up his final year of college eligibility to enter the NBA draft.

“The guys I'm closest to are graduating,” Zeller said.

Like most players, Zeller grew up dreaming of the NBA. Unlike most players, he has a chance to make it come true.

“I can't believe I'll get paid for doing what I love to do,” he said. “Not many people get to do that.

“At the end of the day, I have to do what's best for me.”

IU has tailored a workout program for Zeller and Oladipo for the next three weeks that will focus on strength training and skill development as they prepare for pre-draft camps and team workouts. He will enter the NBA Draft Combine on May 16-17 in Chicago. The draft is set for June 27 in Brooklyn, N.Y.

“It will be fun to go through workouts with Vic,” Zeller said. “We've already been working out together. It's fun to have some in the same situation as me.”

Added Crean: “He'll work out here with structure and preparation for what he's about to do and what he needs to get better at. Once the semester is over, decisions will get made as far as where to (work out) from. He'll sign with an agent when he and his family are ready.”

Zeller insisted he is ready for this NBA jump.

“The past two years have probably been the best two years of my life. Playing for these coaches, with the guys in our locker room, for the fans and students and people in Bloomington. It's been a great two years, but at this point in my life, it's best for me to pursue my dream of playing in the NBA.”

He'll leave a legacy, Crean said, that goes way beyond his numbers.

“I hope everybody will remember that the things Cody has done have been nothing short of phenomenal.”

This column is the commentary of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of The News-Sentinel. Email Pete DiPrimio at pdiprimio@news-sentinel.com.