In the week since the G League season ended its hibernation following the conclusion of All-Star weekend, there has been a cornucopia of incredible performances from players around the league. Charlotte Hornets assignee Dwayne Bacon is the best example of that as he’s cooked up some sizzling outings, which included a 51 point game against the Fort Wayne Mad Ants on February 19th. Alongside Bacon, we’ve seen Lamar Peters have a 19 assist game, and Frank Mason put up 35+ points in back-to-back outings.
While those three guys have impressed over the past week, there has been one player that has shown consistent dominance in recent games. That man is Pelicans rookie forward Zylan Cheatham, who has spent the season playing with the Erie BayHawks. Although he’s been fantastic throughout the year, the 6’8 forward has recently pushed himself to another level. Over his last 5 games with Erie, the Arizona State alum has averaged 17.6 points, 16.4 rebounds, and 3 rebounds on 61% from the field and 40% from 3 on 2 attempts per game.
The eye-popping numbers continue when you look at his advanced numbers as the forward has a 66% True Shooting Percentage and 25.3% Total Rebound Percentage. To put that second number in perspective, former Agua Caliente Clippers big Angel Delgado maintained a 21.9 Total Rebound Percentage, which stood as the best average in the league since the 2006-07 season.
Cheatham’s ability to swallow up rebounds like Kirby is due to high awareness, durable 220-pound frame, and just outworking the players that he’s battling in the paint. While I’ve only seen him play through a laptop screen, his tenacity remains evident from how he boxes out or goes for strong two-handed putbacks once the ball bounces off the front rim. Those traits are visible in the clip below as the forward uses his muscular frame to overpower the Windy City opponent as the ball goes up in the air. Once it bounces off the front rim, the two-way player snatches it and then puts up a layup before the two surrounding defenders can try to stop him.
Although he stands as one of the best rebounders in the G League, the rookie forward isn’t a one-note player. His potential starts to become a lot more intriguing when you look at the broader scope of his all-around game. Because at that point, you see an athletic 6’8, 220-pound rookie that can work as your prototypical roll man or push the ball up the court in transition like a smaller point or shooting guard.
That comparison isn’t far-fetched as Cheatham is quick forward that’s very comfortable running down the court with the ball in his hands. Although he can leave opposing bigs in a cloud of dust, he can also change direction and speed on a dime. Those two traits are seen in the clip below as he starts the drive jogging before changing direction and speed to motor past the Windy City defender.
Along with doing his best impression of Russell Westbrook, he’s shown flashes of using those skills in transition to be a point forward.
Moving back to half-court offenses, the rookie combines amazing rebounding skills with work as a roll man and some upside as a perimeter threat. Regarding that first trait, Erie does a lot of quick pick-and-roll action where the ball is fed to the roll man before they even enter the paint. That prevents from screeners like Zylan from getting a lot of alley-oop opportunities. In those unique sets, he’s still able to shine through being able to capture the pass, move towards the paint, and explode at the rim.
Moving onto his work as a perimeter shooter, this is the one skill to keep an eye on moving forward. In addition to progression improving his chances of sticking in the NBA, it’s a skill that he’s been working since his senior year with Arizona State. With Erie, it’s a smaller part of his game as he only has 75 attempts in the 28 games that he’s played with Erie. In those limited attempts, he’s impressive by shooting 35% from 3 during the year, which is due to a smooth shooting stroke.
Although he’s been able to stand out as one of the best rookies in the G League, Cheatham doesn’t seem to have reached his peak as a player. While you usually can’t say that about a 24-year-old rookie, this case seems different through showing glimpses of being a point forward that can square up and hit some threes. Currently, those traits stand as small parts of his overall arsenal. However, progressing in those areas is enormous, as they can mean the difference between him receiving a guaranteed deal with an NBA team.
So while he has been able to stand out in the G League with Erie, Zylan Cheatham’s upside remains high and is a player to watch from 2020-21 and beyond.