Charlotte Hornets: Willy Hernangomez has made Cody Zeller expendable

CHARLOTTE, NC - APRIL 1: Willy Hernangomez
CHARLOTTE, NC - APRIL 1: Willy Hernangomez /

Willy Hernangomez could replace Cody Zeller in the Charlotte Hornets’ rotation and allow the team to trade the former fourth overall pick.

The Charlotte Hornets have a bit of a logjam in their frontcourt. Particularly at the center position where they have Dwight Howard, Cody Zeller and Willy Hernangomez. With Howard as the starter, it makes little sense for the team to keep both Zeller and Hernangomez going into next season.

Willy’s promising finish to the 2017-18 campaign had to have left a strong impression on the Hornets as he scored 10+ points in eight of his final 12 games. He also grabbed 10+ rebounds in four times and recorded three double-doubles. Averaging 9.6 points per game and 7.6 rebounds over those 12 outings, Hernangomez really came into his own as he got consistent playing time for Charlotte.

The 23-year old Spaniard showcased the skills that got him named to the All-Rookie first-team last season.Not only is Hernangomez younger than Zeller but he is also on an extremely team-friendly contract. Willy is set to make only $1.5 million in 2018-19 and $1.7 million in 2019-20.

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As for Zeller, he was limited to only 33 games during the 2017-18 season and has missed a total of 98 games over the past four years. At some point, his durability has to come into question. If Charlotte can’t rely on Cody to stay healthy and be an important role player for them, their best bet may be to move him and give his minutes to Hernangomez.

The 25-year old’s contract could also be a major factor in him potentially being traded. The Hornets signed Zeller to a four-year, $56 million extension in 2016 and he is set to make $13.5M in 2018-19, $14.4M in 2019-20 and $15.4M 2020-21. He was the fifth-highest paid player on the team this past season and will be the fourth-highest paid player next year.

Charlotte will have to decide if a player who averaged 7.1 PPG and 5.4 RPG off of the bench warrants being the fourth-highest paid player on the team. Looking at the Hornets’ salary cap situation, they will need to make a few trades in order to re-sign Kemba Walker and stay under the luxury tax going forward.

They’ve already looked into moving players like Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Dwight Howard and Nicolas Batum this past season but didn’t find any buyers. Zeller could be a player who garners interest from some teams around the league as he is still young, on a fairly reasonable deal and averaged 10.3 PPG and 6.5 RPG as a starter in 2016-17.

Even if Charlotte decides to keep both Cody and Willy, Hernangomez could win the position battle and leave Zeller as a highly-paid emergency big man at the end of the bench.

Zeller has never really lived up to being a top-5 pick and his development, or lack thereof, with the Hornets may be reaching a breaking point. He hasn’t shown many signs of being a starting level center in the NBA during his first five seasons in the league. While Cody has been a good backup, his contract could be the reason for his exit from the Queen City team.

Maybe the Hornets will decide to move Dwight Howard instead. That would allow Cody Zeller to slide back into the starting lineup and have Hernangomez as the primary backup. Although, that may prove more difficult because even though he is on an expiring contract, D12 is owed a massive $23.8 million.

Next: Is it time for the Hornets to start over and rebuild?

I don’t believe that Charlotte gave away two future second-round picks in order to get Hernangomez for him to be the third center on their depth chart. I think that the Hornets have bigger plans for Willy. Although, it may all come down to who the next head coach is and who he wants in his rotation along with the direction of the team that will be decided by GM Mitch Kupchak.