Notre Dame men's basketball: Effort propels Zeller

TOM NOIE - <a href="http:
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Days off for former Notre Dame power forward Luke Zeller seldom were an option during his first NBA season.

It didn't matter if it was the early days of training camp with the Phoenix Suns, or a meaningless preseason game in some off-the-pace place. It didn't matter if was the first month of the 2012-13 regular-season or one day after his rookie minimum contract was guaranteed for the entire season.

Zeller often was the first to the Suns' facility and the last to leave. Every day. Every week.

Every month. One day, he would ask endless questions of veteran forward Luis Scola. The next, he would listen to any advice offered by veteran Jermaine O'Neal. He'd watch film, ask more questions, listen to counsel from the coaches, and then go back to work.

Having beat the longest of odds and making the team as a free agent last fall three-plus years after graduating Notre Dame, Zeller rarely carried himself like he had it made.

“I know I was able to set myself apart from others by just out-working people,” Zeller said earlier this spring from his home in Washington, Ind. “That didn't change with getting invited to training camp. That didn't change with making the team. That didn't change with making it past certain dates.

“To have an opportunity to play and be able to be an NBA player was a great experience for me. I just soaked it all in every day.”

Invited to preseason camp with the San Antonio Spurs, Zeller was the final player released before official rosters were set for the 2011-12 season. After spending parts of his professional career in Lithuania and Japan and the NBA Development League, maybe that was the closest Zeller, a former Indiana Mr. Basketball and McDonald's All-American who was not drafted coming out of Notre Dame, would get to the NBA.

Maybe it was time for him and his wife to start their family. He wasn't quite ready, and went back to work.

Zeller spent the 2011-12 as a member of the Austin Toros. A solid showing that season (8.2 points, 5.0 rebounds, 1.0 assists in 23.7 minutes per game) led to a preseason camp invitation to Phoenix.

Fate also was a factor.

Channing Frye, a 6-foot-11 forward who could stretch defenses with his perimeter shooting, was diagnosed last summer with an enlarged heart. He sat out the 2012-13 season. That opened a roster spot for someone with similar skills. Former Phoenix general manager Lance Blanks fell hard for the 6-11, 245-pound Zeller. Blanks was quoted last fall in the Arizona Republic that, setting all other basketball skills aside, he considered Zeller “one of the best shooters in the world.”

Zeller outworked fellow big men/free agents Ike Diogu and Solomon Jones to earn one of the final roster spots. He appeared in 16 games and averaged 1.2 points, 0.6 rebounds and 0.2 assists in 3.6 minutes. He shot 34.6 percent from the field, 20 percent from 3 and never went to the free throw line.

“I might not have played big minutes, but I improved every day and loved to be able to work out at that level,” he said. “You have that belief things will work out no matter what the odds are and no matter what happens.”

One of five former Irish to play at least one regular-season NBA game in 2012-13 (see Irish in the Pros info box), Zeller hit a milestone in mid-January. Still an active member of the roster, Zeller was guaranteed to collect his entire rookie salary — $473,604 — regardless of whether he finished the season with the Suns.

He didn't. Zeller's last game turned out to be his best game. On Feb. 10, he played a career-high 10 minutes with two points, four rebounds and three assists in a 97-69 loss to Oklahoma City. Eleven days later, Phoenix acquired power forward Marcus Morris in a trade. The deal left the Suns with 16 players — one over the maximum roster spot.

Zeller didn't need to be a math major to understand who was at the bottom of the roster food chain. The Suns released him.

“It's part of the business,” he said. “It's nothing personal. Somebody had to go, so that's how that worked out.”

Zeller's stay with the Suns muddled his future plans. Prior to this season, he was close to leaving pro ball behind and turning full attention to his family and their non-profit business. Zeller is president of Distinxion, which offers basketball and cheerleading camps around Indiana for grade school kids. Distinxion comes to Culver on June 5 (for more information, go to distinxion.org).

Zeller, who turned 26 in April, wants to chase his hoop dreams for at least one more year. Maybe that means going to Europe, or even getting another chance in the NBA starting with a summer-league squad.

“Once you get in the league, there are more doors that open for you,” Zeller said. “It's your job to determine whether you can kick that door open or it shuts in your face. “I love playing, so I want to play.”