THE QUESTION MARK
Being a top five draft pick comes with a set of expectations that are sometimes warranted and sometimes unfair. In Cody’s case they are mostly unfair because his draft in 2013 was weak on talent with few, if any, franchise changing players.
Few thought that Cody would start his rookie campaign as timid and confused as he seemed. Often out of position or out of control Zeller struggled through the first half of last season. The second half of the season found a more comfortable Zeller who carved a niche as a rebounder off the bench.
NBA.com’s David Aldridge named him as the Hornets “Key Man.” The backcourt is even more crowded than it was last year. Cody will have to step it up big time if he expects to have a more significant role on this team.
Doug Branson @QCHDoug
I’d like to start with a positive here, but it’s difficult. Simply put, Zeller doesn’t have a great feel for the game on this end yet. Anyways, here goes my best effort. His most noticeable offensive strength for a 7-footer is athleticism + ability to run the floor like a wing. In a straight line, and at full speed, there are few PF’s and centers that can keep up with Zeller in the open floor. He played heavy minutes with Ramon Sessions for the better part of last season, who we all know likes to put his head down and sprint down the floor with the ball, so Zeller’s athleticism was put on full display with Sessions.
Roughly 70% of Zeller’s FGA last season were taken at-the-rim, but the vast majority of those attempts came out of sequences where he put the ball on the floor from the top-of-the-key. In the attempt to evolve Cody into a stretch-4, Charlotte put him in a ton of pick-and-pop situations last season. Rarely did Zeller roll following a ball-screen. He didn’t shoot the ball very well from mid-range last season, and was also clearly uncomfortable taking that shot unless he was wide open. Zeller’s preference when catching the ball in a pick-and-pop sequence was to beat his recovering defender to the rim with his quickness. Ah, and in this en-lies the problem: he essentially had zero go-to moves from this position. No apparent plan, zero go-to moves, and didn’t have a great repertoire of ball-fakes to get himself to spots close to the rim. Cody showed development as the season progressed with footwork and operating away from the basket under control, but defenders knew that he didn’t want to take the mid-range jumper if he didn’t have to, so they played off of Zeller and clogged his path to the basket. Continuing to develop a trusty jump-shot is essential for him to make things easier on himself offensive (see LaMarcus Aldridge). A simple shot/ball-fake when you have an efficient mid-range jumper will have defenders over-committing regularly, and pave the path to the rim.
Activity around the rim, especially on the offensive glass, is another area in which Zeller has an advantage. He’s tough to block out due to his athleticism and mobility, and he showed us that in flashes last season – keeping balls alive off the glass and put-backs are energy pluses that Zeller’s athleticism should bring to the court for many seasons in the NBA.
If Zeller can begin to develop into a versatile offensive player then he should be a shoe-in to play PF in the NBA, if we see a drop in that development over the next two-three seasons then I’m afraid he may be headed down a similar path that Biyombo has. Don’t read too much into ‘versatile offensive player’ – he doesn’t necessarily have to add a three-point shot anytime soon – simply work on that mid-range jumper, and if it becomes more efficient, this will open up the floor for Zeller’s athleticism to take over.
Does he guard PF’s or centers? At this point, we don’t have an answer to that question, but it can be flipped into a positive when considering that his athleticism gives Cody defensive flexibility to guard both of those positions. Speaking of athleticism, let’s just go ahead and affirm that Zeller’s most glaring strength defensively is his ability to chase down transition plays at 7-feet and rarely allow the play to beat him down the floor.
Zeller struggled with defensive positioning and reaction time in his rookie year, but no one should be shocked. He’s played center his entire life and is now being asked to guard pick-and-rolls + chase around athletic PF’s on a nightly basis. Learning how to consistently get into a defensive stance, which is difficult for a 7-footer, and developing quicker footwork are the keys to his ability to defend PF’s in the NBA. If Zeller’s offensive development manifests according to plan, then he’ll assuredly be slotted into the starting lineup at some point and will be defending PF’s. That’s exactly what’s so interesting about this guy’s development – simply doesn’t own the defensive tools + upside for it to depict his role in the NBA.
Spencer Percy @QCHSpencer
Zeller is easily able to take his long, lanky seven foot frame from the top of the key to the rim. Zeller didn’t get into ISO’s situations very often, the seven-footer regularly was able to work in a pick-and-pop situation. Even though his ability to cut to the rim is apparent, Zeller is still tentative when he’s asked to shoot from mid-range.
To counteract his lack of strength, Zeller is able to get an advantage over the opposition by being more active in the low-post.
There were way too many times when Zeller was out-muscled in the low-post. He’s slow to react to the movement of the opposition. These split-second mistakes can be extremely costly when he’s trying to work against the pick-and-roll or ISO. During the prior season, opposing players were able to easily drive past Zeller and work their way to the rim.
Dakota Schmidt @Dakota_Schmidt
NUMBER TO KNOW
Two years ago, it would have been hard to imagine an NBA player living in the shadow of Josh McRoberts. But that’s where Zeller found himself last season, as McRoberts’ passing, shooting and athleticism made him the perfect complement for big man Al Jefferson.
New addition Marvin Williams will likely inherit the starting role at power forward, but Zeller will have a chance a shot at stealing minutes if he can improve his mid-range game. Even with the addition of Lance Stephenson, the starting five is shooting-challenged, and the big man next to Jefferson will primarily need to space the floor on offense.
Zeller shot 28.4% outside the paint last year (excluding one three-point heave), and any gains he made over the course of the season were mild. Even with his much-improved play late in the season, most of that uptick came from his success near the basket. He shot 26.4% outside the paint before the All-Star break and 33.3% afterwards, but on significantly smaller percentage of his attempts (41% of all shots before the break vs. 28.8% afterward).
Not only would an improved jumper help open driving lanes for the guards, it’d help his off-the-bounce game, where he’s shown some promise. Making the defense respect him would be a big first step.
Greg Pietras @Handles_Messiah
HIVE TALK LIVE TAKE
Doug and Spencer share their thoughts on Kemba Walker. Join Hive Talk Live every Friday at 6:30pET ONLY on Queen City Hoops
We’ll be profiling every player on the roster between now and the beginning of the season. Check back next week when we profile BIZ!, Bismack Biymobo.