As I watched game after game in an endless series of erratically air conditioned gyms in Las Vegas last July, I was mesmerized by his game.
He catches the ball with his back to the basket, 12 feet from the rim, spins around his defender and drives quickly to the basket. He catches the ball 18 feet from the basket and takes his defender off the dribble, then pulls up for the 10-foot jumper - hangs in the air like a guard and smoothly releases the shot with perfect rotation that touches nothing but net. The next time he catches the ball out at that range, he sticks a jumper standing just inside the three-point line. Spotting again out on the perimeter, he catches the ball, uses a quick shoulder fake and then dribbles through the defense, pulling up for an eight-foot jumper. When he receives the ball on the baseline with his back to the basket, he turns toward the middle of the court and elevates for an eight-foot soft kiss off the glass. He draws double-teams almost every time he touches the ball, but even when he has no shot he torches defenses with his dribble-drive or his visionary passing.
This young star stands 6'11" and has as smooth and polished a skill set and feel for the game in the high and low post as I saw all summer. Soft shooting touch with range to the perimeter. Agility, vision and the handle to drive the lane. That elusive feel for one's defender in the low post that allows him to go either shoulder to score.
And Luke Zeller was not yet a high school junior.
The Washington, IN star weighed then 215 pounds, but as soon as he concluded his summer tour of AAU events and camps, he hit the weights and plays today at 225. Zeller can be defined as either a power forward or center, with the size, range, foot quickness and savvy to defend either position and score from any spot on the floor.
With good reason, Indiana's Mike Davis and Notre Dame's Mike Brey were camped out at just about every game I saw in Vegas for Zeller and the Hoosier Stars. They were joined by Illinois, Kansas, Michigan, Michigan State, Stanford, Louisville, Missouri, North Carolina, North Carolina State, Xavier and more.
Before he even started his junior year, it was clear that Luke Zeller would be a must inclusion in any Top 20 national list in this 2005 class. Indeed, TheInsidersHoops has him currently with a five-star rating in this junior class. And with what I saw from that summer, I don't have much hesitation in labeling Zeller the best basketball player Stanford has recruited in the Mike Montgomery era. He is as good now as David Padgett was a year older.
Put another way, Luke Zeller could play significant minutes today for Stanford Basketball, and that says something for the undefeated #1 ranked team in the nation. He would probably start right now for most teams in the Pac-10. The guy is scary good, and he has the classroom and basketball IQ to match.
Zeller is #1 in his Washington High School class in Indiana, having maintained a perfect 4.0 GPA all the way through high school. The junior logged a 1220 SAT late last year to boot, which puts him squarely in Stanford's rarified academically recruitable range.
The problem is that he has suitors from all over the nation at his feet, and most have a decided geographic proximity advantage over Stanford out West. The good news for Cardinalmaniacs™ is that Zeller has all but blocked out recruiting during basketball season. With a top list of approximately 20 schools on his mind, nearly all of which made scholarship offers before he ever tipped off this junior season, the task of winnowing down his options to a list of five visit schools is more than he can handle. The cerebral student-athlete wants to take a careful and thoughtful approach to this life-altering college decision.
He did take one run at narrowing down his college list earlier in the season, but the enormity of the task was more than he handle given his current level of information on schools.
"I tried to take a stab at it, but I just couldn't do it," he says.
And did Stanford get crossed off during that attempt?
"No, they did not," he answers.
To help you understand why the Card could be one of the teams that still stands this spring when he takes decides the quintet he will officially visit, consider his comments on what he watches in programs as he follows them on TV.
"You can tell what kind of chemistry and personalities players and coaches have. You have to look at that and see if you mess with the team," he describes. "I'm watching how coaches coach in games, how they act in interviews and how they follow substitution patterns."
Though Zeller admits that he is not able to watch quite enough college basketball every evening, his youngest brother Cody keeps him plenty informed. The fifth grader sets his alarm to wake him each morning at 6:21 A.M. in time for the 6:30 edition of Sportcenter.
"I watch games here and there, but he's a Sportscenter fanatic," the elder Zeller states. "He tells me everything that happened the previous night, blow by blow."
The Zeller brothers are a tight group, and the entire family lives and breathes basketball - as is so often the case in Indiana. Middle brother Tyler is currently in 8th grade and will soon make the jump to high school basketball, which is a significant event in this family. So much so that the eldest brother has previously told The Bootleg that watching Tyler play in high school would be a very compelling factor for him to choose a college close to home.
That outlook has been modified recently, however.
"The more I think about it, it might not matter," the Hoosier State star junior reveals. "I have a good friend who is a preferred walk-on at Butler right now - he's taking a redshirt. Well, he has gotten home only once or twice all year, and that's just in Indianapolis."
That is most welcome news for Mike Montgomery and the Stanford coaching staff to hear, though do not think that schools closer to Washington, IN lack real advantages. Even if Zeller cannot get to see his younger brothers' games as they are maturing, it would still be a big attraction for the family to be close enough to regularly watch his games in college.
Statistically speaking, Stanford has maybe a 25% chance of making his final five, which will receive official visits. But something decidedly in their favor is the heralded season that the Cardinal and Montgomery are enjoying.
"They haven't lost yet, and that helps," the elite junior big man allows. "The only question, though, with a really good team like that is will you play? There have been some great players I have seen who have not played until they are sophomores or juniors at some places. Don't get me wrong, though. While I want to play, I don't want it handed to me. I want to earn it. There are just some places in a given year where the deck is already stacked."
These quotes and insights help us understand just a little bit of how Zeller will approach the narrowing of his college list in the next couple months, but that is an event for the future. He sat down early this season with his Washington HS head coach, Dave Omer, and the two of them decided that he should put off all recruiting thoughts and activities until after the season. Indiana high school is deadly serious business, and Washington has had the highest of goals all year.
Their 12-0 start to the season earned them the #1 ranking in the state (class AAA), and every team they faced was bringing their best game to take down the top-ranked Hachets. Zeller has been an individual focus of teams since he was a freshman of high school, facing double-teams at every turn and plenty of triple-teams.
"You get used to it," he says of the defensive attention. "I've had it so long, I hardly even think about it. If I have an open look, I'll probably take it high-low. In the low post, my hook shot is working pretty well and my turnaround is OK."
Though Zeller and the Hachets suffered a mini-slump a few weeks ago, dropping three games in a short period of time, they have rebounded to a 17-3 record and #7 ranking in the state. In Washington's last game this past Friday, Zeller scored 23 points in 22 minutes with a 102-degree fever. He had slept 17 straight hours the night before the game, but he scored the first 12 points of regulation. In his last three games, Zeller has averaged 15 rebounds.
Averaging 19.5 points, 9.5 rebounds, three blocks and three assists per game, Zeller takes more pride in his defense and fundamentals than anything else.
"People tell me I have great fundamentals, but I hardly even notice," he comments. "That's just the way Coach Omer has us play. That's the way you're supposed to play."
It is not surprising, then, that Zeller is leaning toward not playing AAU basketball this summer. Omer is devising a set of individual workouts for Zeller, and the all-world Indiana star sees more upside to time spent in his high school gym with his coach than on the crazed summer travel circuit.
"I mean, how much do you learn running up and down the floor with guys who don't pass the ball?" the wise basketballer asks rhetorically.
Zeller does figure he will attend the Nike All-American Camp in nearby Indianapolis in July, but he has turned down invitations to play in Italy this year and also Germany. The latter would have been a 15-day tour to play with other top American preps in Deutschland, but the tour was to come in May and overlap with his schooling. Unwilling to ditch his classes, he turned down the invite to give his attention instead to history, English and mathematics.
"Some of my teachers were all for it," he notes. "But my principal said he didn't think I could hold onto my 4.0 GPA if I took off."
This is what makes Zeller different from other All-American basketball talents. He takes a different path, and he is not ashamed to do it. Breaking away from Indiana, Louisville, Purdue and Kansas would shock most of those nationally who are watching his development and recruitment from afar, but to those who know the young man, nothing should surprise. Even a hard look at the Stanford Cardinal, all the way out there in crazy California.
"I've had three or four people in the last month tell me it's just the most beautiful campus," he says of The Farm. "That helps. That's attractive."
But recruiting news for Zeller will be impossible to come by until his junior season concludes. With the Hachets playing their best basketball of the year, their postseason march could take them to the end of March. This year they are trying to do something last achieved at Washington in 1983 - win their sectional. With four of the top 10 teams in the state in their sectional, that looks like a tall order again this year. They have one more regular season game tomorrow, and then next Friday play in the sectional semifinals after an opening bye. They will be favored to win that semifinal game, and then they will play Saturday for a championship not known to Zeller's school in his lifetime.
Oh, and to give you a little slice of flavor as to the intensity and importance of basketball at his school, look no further than the Washington gym. It holds 7,000 and will be the host site for both sectionals and regionals this year. Seven thousand.
Just another reminder of how different Indiana basketball truly is from the rest of the country. Very fittingly, Luke Zeller is that different and special a player on the court and student in the classroom.
Write him down as the #1 target this recruiting year for Mike Montgomery and Stanford Basketball. He is the future. He is the prize.
Are you fully subscribed to The Bootleg? If not, then you are missing out on all the top Cardinal coverage we provide daily on our website, as well as our full-length feature articles in our glossy magazine. Sign up today for the biggest and best in Stanford sports coverage with TheBootleg.com (sign-up) and The Bootleg Magazine (sign-up)!