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Queen City Hoops Player Preview: Cody Zeller

“Not only did they reach for a player, but they reached for a guy who could wind up being a block magnet. And he may not be considerably better, at least immediately — than Byron Mullens.”

— Matt Moore, CBS

“Zeller might have been underrated, but I don’t think he’s as good a prospect as Noel or McLemore. Once again I think the Bobcats have blown it.”

— Chad Ford, ESPN

“Booooooo boooo boooooo booooo booooo (HEY THAT’S A GOOD PICK) boooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooo”

— Bobcats fans

A lot of people did not like the Cody Zeller pick. I didn’t at the time. It gave me flashbacks to 2008, when Charlotte took a player that filled a team need (DJ Augustin) over a prospect widely considered the better choice (Brook Lopez).

Time has made that decision look bad, but gut feelings on draft day rarely mean much: just look at the instant reaction to the Adam Morrison pick, which was largely positive. We know how that turned out.

Besides, Zeller’s strong performance in Las Vegas this summer has me at least a little more confident. Summer League stats always come with an asterisk, but his ability to hit outside shots, run the floor and cover ground on defense gave a glimpse of his path to success in the NBA.

Zeller didn’t show his jumper much at Indiana, but it could be the key for his offense moving forward. According to Matt Kamalsky at Draft Express, Zeller shot a below-average 43 percent in the post last year, and it’s likely he’ll struggle against the more athletic and savvy pro players. He compensated for that by drawing a huge amount of fouls, earning free throws on 25.7 percent of his possessions. That’s probably also going to take a hit — again, he’ll be losing some of his athletic advantage, and NBA refs tend to give veterans the benefit of the doubt. On the plus side, he can rely on his quick step and skill in transition to at least get a few easy buckets a game.

Rebounding is a potential problem area. He pulled down a respectable 8.1 boards per game in his sophomore year, but looked lost in the forest at times during Summer League. He still averaged a nice 9.3 rebounds per game there, but clearly struggled against longer and bigger players. Fortunately, its an area where he won’t have to excel right away. When playing next to Al Jefferson and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, he’ll have the protection of two strong rebounders, so he has a little room to learn.

It will probably take him a while to pick up the finer points of NBA defense, but Zeller seems to have the skills for it. His shorter wingspan means he’ll probably never be a shotblocker, but that doesn’t mean he can’t be an effective defender. Zeller can cover a lot of ground with his quick feet, and seems to handle switches very well. Jefferson has size and Bismack Biyombo can alter shots, but due to his savvy and speed Zeller is probably already the best team defender in the Bobcats’ big-man rotation.

Like all of the Charlotte’s recent draft picks, Zeller comes off as a hard worker and a team player. A big investment in the coaching staff this offseason, along with the money spent in free agency, gives him a good chance to start his pro career off right. Here’s hoping he can change a few minds.