Q+A: Tyler and Cody Zeller


by Adam Maher / @ArtoMar1

Tyler and Cody Zeller have each come a long way since ruling the small-town hallways and hard courts of Washington (IN) HS, where they both finished top three academically in their classes and were named Indiana Mr. Basketball their senior years (‘08, ‘11, respectively), winning multiple 3A IHSAA state titles (Tyler won two, Cody, three—they shared one in 2008).

Tyler, on top of finding himself on the cover of SLAM 153, averaging 16.5 ppg and being named ACC Player of the Year, went onto become the first UNC men’s basketball player in the history of the program to receive Academic All-America Team Member of the Year honors his senior season (also, he is the first UNC men’s baller to be named Academic AA twice, according to a friend at Bloomberg Sports—how ‘bout dem apples, Damon?). Not too shabby for a 7-0, 250-pound, turn-around right-hook extraordinaire.

Cody, who is three years Tyler’s junior—and is better known in Bloomington as The Big Handsome—heroically led the much-needed and heavily televised resurgence of Hoosier basketball this season, his first at IU. The 6-11, 230-pound mega-frosh’s team-best 15.6 ppg and 6.6 rpg earned him Big Ten Freshman of the Year honors. Essentially, the kid has superhero status in Indiana.

In today’s NCAA men’s basketball era, it can sometimes seem as if we have more college hoppers than we do actual student-hoopers playing in the Sweet 16. And whatever your stance may be on the 2005 CBA Draft Rule, from A to Z, the Zeller brothers mean (in Tyler’s case, meant) much more to college basketball than any National Championship banner could ever show.

Ty is set to graduate this semester with a four-year degree in business, and is projected to go top 15 in this year’s Draft. Meanwhile, Cody, just last week, much to the chagrin of Wildcat Nation, opted to stay a Hoosier for his sophomore season, despite many experts projecting him to go top 10 in the Draft this year, solidifying IU’s status as a top-five contender for next year’s National Championship. Following in the footsteps of their oldest brother, Luke, who was valedictorian at Washington, was named Indiana Mr. Basketball (2005) and went onto enjoy a career at Notre Dame, Cody and Tyler Zeller are doing big things the right way.

SLAMonline caught up with both bros over the phone last week. Here’s what they had to say about growing up in a house with three 7-footers (five 6-foot-plusers if you count mom and dad), making a positive impact on their communities via the sport they love so much, and straight up enjoying life as student athletes.

Tyler’s conversation first, followed by Cody’s, naturally:

SLAM: How does earning ACC Player of the Year honors compare to being named Indiana Mr. Basketball?

Tyler Zeller: They’re both great honors and something that I was trying to play for. We were just trying to win every game and I was trying to help my team in any way possible and I was blessed enough to win those awards.

SLAM: You finished third in your class at Washington academically. How does that compare to becoming the first UNC men’s basketball player to earn Academic All-American honors twice?

TZ: It’s a great honor for both me and my parents. High school was a bit easier, with a smaller pool of people. Being an Academic All-American, the Academic All-American in the nation, shows that you do have basketball skills, but that you’re also intelligent. It’s something I’m very proud of.

SLAM: Can you talk about what you learned from watching your older brother Luke at Notre Dame, and how you applied those things to your own life, and to helping your younger brother, Cody, achieve success?

TZ: Seeing Luke make the transition from high school to college, seeing how intense it is, how quick and physical it is, just being able to play against Luke growing up, being able to see Luke’s recruiting process, the transitions of moving away from home. Luke taught me a lot of the little things, and I tried to tell Cody—the best ways to prepare, to get in with a crowd of friends that you want, the best ways to find resources, things like that.

SLAM: How did you enjoy being a business major?

TZ: I loved it. There are only 400 people in the school; all of the classes were in the same building. You see the same people and get to know them really well, handling lots of group projects. I love learning about how business operates and the ways to make it more efficient, things like that.

SLAM: Most people project you to go first round in this year’s NBA Draft. You’re going to have some extra dollars to throw around—do you have any little business side projects you’re thinking up yet? Or down the road, 10, 20 years from now, what kind of business ventures might you be interested in after life in the NBA?

TZ: No, I have no idea, I mean, right now I have about $1,000 to my name so, I don’t know what I’ll do with it. I’ll probably just invest it and see what happens from there. It’s one of those things that you have to wait for an opportunity to come about.

SLAM: So right now it’s pretty much just focusing on the business of basketball.

TZ: Yep.

SLAM: Cool. So I understand you, Cody and your family have a deep faith in religion. Christian, I believe?

TZ: Right. My parents brought us up Lutheran. And as we’ve gone to college, we’ve gone more nondenominational. We do as a family definitely have a religious base—my brother (Luke) has a non-profit called DistinXion that’s been running for about three years now I think. It’s a camp that focuses on character, leadership and basketball development with a Christian background, and with a weekly Bible study led by the counselors. It’s kind of cool how religion keeps us all accountable. It’s a big part of our family.

SLAM: I heard practically everything was a competition with your brothers when you guys were growing up. You guys even used to save your pizza crust to see who ate the most slices?

TZ: Yeah we still do that.

SLAM: That’s funny. The record was like 21?

TZ: I don’t know—it depends on where you go. So, some places have bigger pizzas than others and we’ve had pancake-eating contests—everything we do is pretty much a contest. We have fun with it.

SLAM: Did you ever imagine that all three of you would be Indiana Mr. Basketball, all three of you would play big-time DI? Did you ever dream you’d be going to the NBA—just last week Cody had to publicly announce that he wasn’t declaring for the Draft because so many people wanted to know.

TZ: I think it’s something that you always dream about as little kids. You never really fathom that it will become true. For all three of us to play major DI basketball is incredible—Luke’s in the D-League (Austin Toros) trying to get into the NBA and hopefully I get in this year. So, it’s been a great experience, and something you don’t ever really think is capable of happening.

SLAM: How does the reality compare to the dream?

TZ: It’s a great feeling. Anytime to get an opportunity to achieve your goals is an amazing feeling.

SLAM: Has anyone called you offering advice?

TZ: All the Carolina guys come back every summer. They’re great to be able to talk to. I signed an agent last Monday (Excel Sports Management). I’m just kind of going through the process and we’ll see what happens.

SLAM: What parts of your game are you going to have to improve upon the most in order to be effective in the NBA your rookie season? What are your thoughts about competing with the NBA’s 7-footers on a daily basis?

TZ: Pretty much every day for the past six years I’ve competed with 7-footers. In high school my sophomore year we had a 6-11 kid, my junior and senior year in high school we had another 6-11 kid. In college I’ve been playing against John [Henson] pretty much every day and in the summers we always have the NBA guys who come back. So it’s something that I’ve been adapting to for a long time as far as my game goes. I think getting bigger and stronger will be very important, but I don’t think the height of people will be a big deal.