Tyler Zeller entering third year helping Northwood basketball

The former UNC center now coaches near alma mater


Northwood athletic director Cameron Vernon pulled into a Lowe’s parking lot one day three years ago.

The COVID-19 pandemic had already put its hold on the world, and Vernon, like many Americans stuck at home, was doing a house project.

At the same time that Vernon got out of his car, a “very large individual”, as he described him, stepped out of his own nearby vehicle as well.

“Holy crap, it’s Tyler Zeller,” Vernon, a UNC basketball fan, said in his mind. And from there, that Lowe’s trip quickly turned into an ongoing project for his boys basketball team.

Zeller, a former UNC center, is entering his third year helping out and serving as an assistant coach with the Northwood boys basketball program. Just three years removed from his NBA career, the job has kept him around the game while adding a valuable voice of guidance for the Chargers.

“I really enjoy being around basketball,” Zeller said. “(And) being able to help, which is really what I love about being able to do what I do.”

For Zeller, crossing paths with Vernon probably didn’t mean much at the time, but the Northwood AD almost immediately thought of how to get him from aisle seven to the Chargers’ sideline.

Zeller permanently moved to the Pittsboro area with his family about three years ago. Before then, he owned a house in the area where he would come back to work out at UNC or play pick-up during the downtimes of his last few NBA seasons.

“I love Chapel Hill,” Zeller said. “It’s hard to leave. We moved to Pittsboro, just for a little more space, a little more land, and to be close to Chapel Hill.”

Vernon got word that Zeller moved close by around that time, and through Chip Snively, a professor at the Kenan-Flagler School of Business, he had a contact.

Snively’s daughter played under Vernon at Northwood when he coached the girls basketball team, and he had an established relationship with Zeller.

“After I went home, I texted Mr. Snively, and I said, ‘Hey, I saw Tyler. I’d love to talk to him about coaching at Northwood,’” Vernon said. “Chip responded and said, ‘Here’s his number, but just knowing Tyler, don’t expect him to reply quickly.’”

Zeller responded in a few days.

He shared with Vernon his interest in coaching high school basketball, but Zeller still had an NBA career occupying his time.

It just so happened that Zeller’s pro career ended in the next NBA preseason. Vernon, who had been closely following his journey, got Zeller to come out and observe the Northwood team shortly after.

“You could tell he was loving being in the setting,” Vernon said.

And from there, Zeller started his new phase of basketball, working with a team as a coach for the first time.

Yet, with Zeller’s humility and his commitment to his family after traveling so much throughout his eight-year NBA career, getting him fully on board took some time.

“Each year, he’s gotten a little more involved,” Vernon said. “Tyler’s very humble. He doesn’t like to be seen. I think he knows that sometimes he can bring attention to himself. That first year, he would come to all the practices but he never came to games. Last year, he came to the big games. And once playoffs hit, he was all in. He was here for every game.”

Since joining the team, Northwood’s coaching staff and players have enjoyed his presence, especially the basketball knowledge he shares.

“It’s a huge blessing,” Northwood head coach Matt Brown said. “One, he’s a great guy. The guys love him. He gives so much insight on how the game is played, especially from an NBA perspective…To be able to work with these guys on the little things, tendencies, defensively and offensively, it just gives us a leg up.”

Fortunately for Zeller’s humble spirit, some of the Northwood guys aren’t old enough to know exactly who he is or what he’s done, despite winning a national championship just up the road in 2009.

“It’s kind of nice because I can come in try to add a little bit of value to them,” Zeller said. “They know I played basketball, but most of them don’t know or haven’t watched me in that way.”

But in a similar way that Zeller isn’t just an ordinary coach, he isn’t helping out with an ordinary roster. Northwood has a deep, talented group of players, including senior Fred Whitaker and UNC commit Drake Powell, who could very well be in the NBA just like Zeller one day.

The abundance of solid players at Northwood was one of the reasons why Vernon wanted him around in the first place.

“We got some really good talent,” Vernon said. “I and Coach Brown and all of our coaches want to surround our kids with some really good people, and what better guy to coach our kids than Tyler Zeller.”

Although they don’t talk too much about campus life, Zeller still gives the future Tar Heel high praise.

“He’s always telling me about how I was better than he ever was,” Powell said. “That’s pretty nice coming from him. He’s a guy that has played at the highest level. He tells me just to keep working and put my head down.”

Even though Zeller doesn’t have the desire to become a head coach, his time at Northwood has shown that he can have a future in the business if he wants it.

If one AD is willing to pursue him after seeing him in a Lowe’s parking lot, there’s likely other programs that’ll be glad to have him.