Charlotte Hornets: The Underappreciated Work of Cody Zeller

Ever since being selected fourth overall by the Charlotte Hornets in the weak 2013 Draft Class, Cody Zeller has had to shoulder some lofty expectations.

In a draft consisting mostly of raw, unproven athletes like Nerlens Noel, Steven Adams, Rudy Gobert and Giannis Antetokounmpo, Cody Zeller was one pick of many in a jumbled toss-up of talent. His rookie year began on a rough start, in the first half of the season he had to get used to the size and strength of the NBA big men.

He was routinely pushed and knocked around and that stigma has not been forgotten by many Hornets’ fans. However, he picked things up in the second half of his rookie season and managed to get more regular minutes as a back-up to power forward to Josh McRoberts. He showed more improvement the next year, but on a terrible shooting Hornets’ team. Last offseason the Hornets front office managed to wrangle in guys like Nicolas Batum and Jeremy Lin, guys that could help space the floor with shooting on a team that desperately needed it.

This past season we got to really see the usefulness of Cody Zeller. The Hornets became one of the top three-point shooting teams in the NBA and the spacing provided Zeller more outlets to showcase his skill. The injury to Al Jefferson was somewhat of a boon for the Hornets as Zeller stepped into the starting role at center.

I’m not downplaying the usefulness of Jefferson as he is obviously the much better scorer, but Zeller was a better fit for guys on the first team. Zeller has a high basketball I.Q. and utilizes his quickness and athleticism in the pick-and-roll really well, unlike Jefferson who requires the ball to showcase his great skills in the post.

Batum especially thrived with Zeller at center. With Batum playing the role as point-forward for the Hornets, him and Zeller made a great pairing as both are long, rangy players that can make other teams pay if they exclusively try to guard the perimeter and leave a wide lane in the paint. Here are some examples from last season of their pick-and-roll attacks:

From the video you can see that although Zeller has not quite developed an intimidating presence in the paint, you still have to respect him for his agility and making hard drives to the basket. A prime example of the difference between Jefferson and Zeller can be seen at the 1:20 mark of the video against the Pacers.

With Batum in control of the ball and a defender close to him beyond the three-point line, Zeller comes from underneath the basket to where Batum is at and sets the pick. By doing so, Zeller draws Ian Mahinmi out which leaves a wide open lane down the middle to the basket. Both Batum and Zeller instantly recognize this and take advantage of the situation. With Jefferson, it was rare for him to leave his radius around the basket as his skill set revolves around him being a threat close to the basket.

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However, since Cody does not possess Big Al’s tools, he has used his athleticism and quickness to become a threat in the pick-and-roll, and his teammates realize this, especially Batum. As much as I will miss having Big Al in the post, injuries have taken a toll on him and it was pretty clear the team was looking to go in another direction this offseason. However, it would be nice if Zeller could develop into a more threatening presence in the paint.

On the defensive side of the ball, Zeller is a more than capable defender, but he is not what many would call a “rim-protector”. It was pretty clear in the playoff series against the Miami Heat that the Hornets overly relied on Zeller to be the main rim-protector, and Hassan Whiteside and Dwayne Wade took advantage of this and routinely drove to the basket and scored.

All blame can not be placed on Zeller though as Jefferson and Spencer Hawes aren’t exactly known as great defenders. Game 1 with Miami was a travesty for Charlotte as Whiteside completely dominated the boards, creating a mismatch and forcing the coaches to reexamine their game plan. Eventually they decided to sacrifice defense for offense as Big Al was put in to help offset Whiteside, but it was all for naught as the Hornets suffered a heartbreaking loss in Game 7 of the first round series..

Despite all of what happened against Miami, Zeller has actually developed into an above-average defender since his rookie year.  As with his talents in the pick-and-roll on offense, they translate well for him on defense as well. He is rarely caught out of position on defense and has the ability to guard smaller players who decide to challenge him in the paint.

Mar 16, 2016; Charlotte, NC, USA; Orlando Magic forward Evan Fournier (10) goes up for a shot against Charlotte Hornets center Cody Zeller (40) in the first half at Time Warner Cable Arena. Mandatory Credit: Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports

He really has no problem guarding many of the better center’s in the league as well, but sometimes physically imposing guys like Whiteside or Andre Drummond can give him lots of trouble. With the inclusion of guys like Dwight Howard and Serge Ibaka into the Southeast Division, Cody will need all the help that he can get. Having a former defensive All-Star with something to prove like Roy Hibbert in the fold now will help Zeller and the Hornets offset the weaknesses that they had last year.

Let’s acknowledge the fact that Zeller is still a young 23 year-old who really hasn’t played much at the center position other than this past season. So forgive him for stepping into a position he hasn’t had much experience playing in the NBA. Ever since his rookie season, he has worked hard every offseason to gain muscle to compete with the stronger power forwards and centers of the league.

Arguably, Zeller is the best athlete on Charlotte’s team and his agility and ability to jump like a gazelle (new nickname: Gazeller?) are among the best on the team as well. Also, Zeller is a nice guy who is well-liked by his teammates and the coaching staff. Many times, his niceness and nonchalance on the court is categorized as his weakness, but anyone who truly watches Zeller on the court understands his importance to the Charlotte Hornets.

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