When Stephen Zimmerman committed to UNLV last spring, few expected him to be with the Rebels for more than a season. With the size and skill to project as a top NBA draft pick, it was widely assumed that the 7-foot Bishop Gorman product was strictly a one-and-done college player. And Zimmerman made it official on Monday, when he announced his intentions to turn pro after just one season at UNLV:
— Stephen Zimmerman Jr (@BIGG_ZIMM) March 28, 2016
In a week that held several surprising twists and turns for the UNLV basketball program, Zimmerman’s announcement was entirely expected. The plan was always for Zimmerman to play one season, and UNLV coaches were okay with that. Zimmerman did his part, averaging 10.5 points, 8.7 rebounds and 2.0 blocks per game, and while he wasn’t quite dominant, he played well enough to stick to the plan.
So what can we make of Zimmerman’s time at UNLV? A few quick thoughts on the local kid and how his decision will impact the Rebels going forward:
They say the joy is in the pursuit, and that definitely holds true for the Zimmerman era at UNLV. The Rebels’ recruitment of the local star lasted roughly four times longer than his stay at UNLV, and when he finally did arrive, his one season in scarlet and grey was pretty much wasted on an 18-15 team that will mostly be remembered for getting Dave Rice fired midseason.
The fans embraced him immediately, and Zimmerman carried himself with maturity through trying circumstances. So it’s through no fault of his own—Zimmerman mostly delivered on the court, when healthy—but it was almost impossible for the payoff to live up to the hype.
Production vs. projection
Zimmerman posted good numbers for a freshman big man, scoring 10.5 points per game while pulling down 8.7 rebounds and blocking 2.0 shots. While those stats don’t scream “Lottery pick,” NBA teams aren’t interested in what he did against Mountain West competition as an 18-year-old, they’re intrigued by what he could do against NBA players five or six years down the road.
His physical profile and skill set may actually be better suited for the pro game, as his ability to step back and shoot jumpers as a 7-footer could make him a valued asset in today’s NBA. Spacing is more important than ever, and having a big man who can protect the rim on defense and spot up behind the 3-point line on offense is something most NBA teams covet.
Some mock drafts have Zimmerman pegged as a mid-first round pick, but he could potentially work his way higher up and into the lottery with good pre-draft workouts.
New coach Chris Beard actually gets a little bit lucky here, as the Rebels have a suitable replacement ready to step in and fill Zimmerman’s role next year in Chris Obekpa, a 6-foot-10 senior shot blocking specialist. Obekpa transferred to UNLV from St. John’s last offseason, and he has one year of eligibility remaining, so assuming he can fit into Beard’s system, Obekpa should plug that hole rather smoothly.
In the bigger picture, Zimmerman joins a growing list of players stampeding out the door this offseason. Sophomore forward Dwayne Morgan has already transferred, Class of 2016 recruit Christian Vital has de-committed, Patrick McCaw will likely join Zimmerman in testing the draft waters, and other players could choose to transfer due to the coaching change. It’s going to make filling out the roster in 2016-17 something of a challenge for Beard, who is no stranger to quick rebuilds.