Utah Jazz: Cody Zeller impressive at workout, while UVU's Nick Thompson grateful for opportunity
Ravell Call, Deseret News
SALT LAKE CITY — The Utah Jazz's pre-draft workout Monday turned out to be somewhat of a surprise session.
For starters, Clearfield High product Nick Thompson's jaw dropped when his college coach, Utah Valley's Dick Hunsaker, called to inform him he'd been invited to participate in a workout with the Jazz.
The two-player tryout also mildly stunned some outsiders because it included Indiana center Cody Zeller, an athletic 7-footer who is expected to be long gone by the time the Jazz make the first of their three picks at No. 14.
"Weirder things have happened," Zeller said. "So, I just wanted to be safe."
Zeller has two brothers who played in the NBA last year — big men Tyler Zeller, a Cavalier post player who dropped to No. 17 overall last draft, and Luke Zeller, an undrafted player who spent part of last season with the Suns.
Coincidentally, this Zeller, a second-team All-American who's entering the draft early, will head to Phoenix for his next workout.
"It's fun just getting out here. It's a long process," said Zeller, who averaged 16.1 points and 7.4 rebounds as a sophomore last season. "It's been a lot of talking so far, so it's fun to be out here working out finally."
This was the 20-year-old's first workout with an individual team, and the Jazz liked what they saw from the lottery prospect — and his unlikely-to-be-drafted sparring partner from Utah, for that matter.
"I thought Cody played well. I thought he played stronger as the workout went on," Walt Perrin, the Jazz's director of player personnel, said of the All-Big Ten first-teamer. "I thought Nick also got stronger as the workout went on. It was a good workout for two guys."
This was the first time in three weeks that the Jazz have had a chance to bring players in for up-close-and-personal evaluations. The team hasn’t announced its schedule yet, but many more workouts will take place leading up to the June 27 draft.
Utah would probably be delighted if a player the caliber of Zeller dropped down to the lower end of the lottery, but it's also possible the Jazz could move up if the trading price is right.
Zeller's size, athleticism and mobility make him an intriguing NBA prospect. His standing leap of 35.5 inches — among his "eye-popping" numbers, Perrin said — was the highest of the 60 athletes at last month's Chicago pre-draft combine. He also showed in drills that he has good lane agility.
The Jazz have been impressed by his shooting prowess from outside, too.
"He's got some aspects that are already NBA-ready," Perrin said.
Zeller mentioned his "quickness and athleticism for a big guy" when asked to describe his game's strengths.
"I've got to continue to add strength and weight, just because the guys in the NBA are so big," the 240-pounder said. "It'll be a big year for improvement and kind of a learning year, but I'm ready for the process."
Zeller is from Indiana and got to know Jazz swingman Gordon Hayward while he was being recruited by Butler, which was among his final three college choices (along with IU and North Carolina).
Perrin described Zeller as being a "good fit" for Utah, and the young man seemed to have the right answers for questions from a group of 15 media members.
"They have some talented big guys, but I think I would be good in the rotation," Zeller said when asked about possibly being drafted by Utah. "I think it's already a talented team, great fan support. I think it would be a good spot for me."
And how about the possibility of being coached by Hall of Fame power forward Karl Malone this offseason?
"Yeah, that would be unbelievable," he said. "Just growing up watching him, (he's) obviously a Hall of Famer and one of the greats to ever play the game. It would be unbelievable to kind of pick his brain every day."
Thompson's professional future is much less secure than Zeller's, which might have made the experience even more special for him. After his Clearfield prep days, the 6-9 forward's college career included stops at the College of Eastern Utah, Oklahoma and UVU.
"I grew up being a Jazz fan. All of my friends and family are super excited," said Thompson, whose father moved him to Utah when he was 14 because of his position in the Air Force. "It's such a cool experience. I'm really grateful they (Jazz) reached out to me and gave me an opportunity to be a part of something like this."
The Jazz have a tradition of inviting local standouts — in part to maintain good relationships with Utah college programs, but also as a way to help Beehive State talent land professional jobs either in the U.S. or internationally. On Monday, Thompson, an All-Great West honorable mention player last season, also provided a good workout partner for Zeller.
"We don't overlook them," Perrin said of Utah college players. "We want to give them their opportunity just like anybody else."
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