Charlotte Hornets Power Forward: Zeller or Vonleh


Did Noah Vonleh show the Charlotte Hornets enough to take over the job?

As the Charlotte Hornets off-season rolls on, it is time to start looking at some of the unanswered questions this team will have come October. One of those questions is what to do at the power forward spot. Al Jefferson is cemented in as the team’s center, and Kemba Walker is the point guard.

Michael Kidd-Gilchrist will most likely be starting on the wing. That leaves only two spots where you could reasonably argue about who will be starting in 2015-16. Shooting guard, where incumbent swing man Gerald Henderson has a player-option for next season and will be competing against returning disappointment Lance Stephenson, and power forward.

In the 2014 NBA draft, the Charlotte Hornets selected Noah Vonleh, of the University of Indiana. Vonleh is a quality player, a stretch-four type of front-court player. He did not play much early in the season, but he had a few games late in the year where he showed some promise.

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In one game on April 12, against the Detroit Pistons, Vonleh scored 16 points and grabbed 12 rebounds in almost 29 minutes of playing time. However, he followed up that impressive performance by coming out the very next day and going 1-8 from the field for four points.

Overall,  Vonleh did enough to merit at least some thought as being the starter next season:


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Those are his per-36 minutes numbers, and you can see that Vonleh is very good on the boards at 12 rebounds per-36. Al Jefferson, for comparison, averaged just 9.9 rebounds last year.

In fact, DeAndre Jordan, the league leader in rebounding, grabs just 12.4 boards per-36 minutes. Even if you look at that as a fluke, Vonleh’s total rebound percentage(the percent of all rebounds he grabs while in the game) of 18.3% would rank 11th in the league this year, just behind Andrew Bogut.

This is not unexpected, either, as Vonleh averaged nine rebounds per game in the Big Ten while playing just 26 minutes a night. Over 40 minutes, that translates to 13.6 boards. The guy can rebound the basketball at any level.

He can also shoot. At Indiana, Vonleh shot 48.5% from behind the arc, which is admittedly closer to the basket in the college game. However, when he shoots from NBA three point range, in limited minutes Vonleh has made 38.5% of his shots(5-13).

The combination of long range shooting touch and tough inside rebounding is not something you see everyday. Only Kevin Love, of the Cleveland Cavaliers, is comparable in the association.

Still, with Bismack Biyombo an offensive liability and Jason Maxiell overweight and ineffective, the team turned to 2013 NBA draft selection Cody Zeller to start as the 2014-15 season unfolded. Zeller responded with some very good games, like his 15 point, 14 rebound performance against the Golden State Warriors in November.

Like Vonleh, though, Zeller also had games where he struggled. He scored zero points in over 27 minutes of court-time against the Dallas Mavericks on February 22nd.


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Generated 5/7/2015.

Compared to Vonleh, Zeller is not nearly as good on the boards, and he cannot shoot the three, at least not yet. There is talk of Zeller spending the summer shooting from behind the arc, but until that comes to fruition we have to assume that he is strictly a 16 feet or less guy.

Vonleh has a much smaller sample size, but he is ahead in most categories. Zeller is a slightly better two point shooter, and he shares the ball more easily.

The biggest knock on Zeller is that he did not significantly improve from his rookie season. His shooting percentage went up a little bit, but that came mainly from taking, and making, more of the least efficient shot in basketball: the long two.

37.3% of Zeller’s shots came from between 16 feet and the three point line, the longest distance you can be from the basket and still have your shot worth just two points. He did make 35.3% of those tries, but nevertheless, those are bad shots.

35.3 is not nearly good enough to taking those shots on a regular basis. Anyone who is watching the Eastern Conference semi-final match-up between the Chicago Bulls and the Cleveland Cavaliers, saw how Chicago center Pau Gasol punished the Cavaliers by making wide-open 16 foot jump shots.

Seeing that you might start to think that Zeller could do the same for the Hornets. That would be a mistake. Pau Gasol is an outlier, his shooting touch is not typical for a big man. Gasol hits 47.7% of those long two point shots. If Zeller can start hitting nearly half of his shots from that range, then he can continue shooting.

Right now he needs to stop. Looking through the stats of both players, and analyzing their strengths and weaknesses, it would appear that Vonleh has the edge due to his ceiling being higher.

That is just one opinion, though, and now I ask all Charlotte Hornets fans the question: Who should be the starting power forward next year?