“With the 4th pick in the 2013 NBA Draft, the Charlotte Bobcats select Cody Zeller from Indiana University.”
When these words echoed out of former NBA commissioner David Stern’s mouth, the Charlotte fan base had a very mixed reaction. Some of their reactions probably ranged from:
“Why not take Kentucky freshman Nerlens Noel?”
“I hope he does not end up like Adam Morrison.”
“He might be the missing piece to get our team over 21 wins!”
“When are we going to change the team’s nickname to the Hornets?”
(Ok, this technically does not deal with the Zeller pick, but I am positive it was on everyone’s mind.)
Cody Zeller came to the Hornets franchise as one of the more decorated prospects in the 2013 draft class. During his time at Indiana, Zeller was named Big Ten Freshman of the Year, Second Team All-Big Ten (freshman season), First Team Freshman All-American, First Team All-Big Ten (sophomore season), and First Team Academic All-American. He was expected to contribute quality minutes and provide a spark to one of the NBA’s worst offenses.
However, things went horribly wrong for Zeller in his first season in Charlotte. He started only three games and managed to score a paltry 6.0 PPG. Obviously, this is not what Charlotte’s front office/coaching staff had in mind for the number four pick in the draft. This lack of production is what makes Cody Zeller the main player on the Charlotte Hornets who needs to step up during the 2014-2015 season.
The Hornets offense revolves around Al Jefferson and every opposing coach in the NBA should know this (or be prepared to face the wrath of Big Al!) This means that the other four players on the Hornets are secondary pieces and must find shots that are not necessarily designed for them. This was a big adjustment for Zeller last season because he had been used to being the offensive focal point for the majority of his career. He had trouble finding his groove and had problems developing into the “stretch 4” that the Hornets had hoped he would be. Zeller was effective offensively right around the basket and from the area around the free throw line. However, as mentioned before, Jefferson controls the paint for the Hornets, so Zeller was an afterthought. Zeller came off the bench for the first time since his freshman year in high school, which I’m sure, was another major adjustment. He had been a high school All-American and started both of his seasons at Indiana. Offensively and defensively, he impacted the Hoosiers immediately and probably believed in his ability to do the same for Charlotte. However, the man that Indiana fans called “Big Handsome” had a very difficult time adjusting to life in the NBA.
The biggest problem for Zeller seemed to be his lack of strength. His 7-foot frame did not have the adequate muscle needed for an NBA PF and post players bullied him down low. To nullify this lack of defense from a PF like Zeller, a team needs to have a solid rim protector. Charlotte had no such player on their roster last season. (To put this nicely, Jefferson is a very bad rim protector. That’s putting it nicely.)
Zeller is far from a bust, however. Josh McRoberts took a good bit of the minutes that were designed for Zeller last season. McRoberts, though, took his talents to South Beach, so the Hornets can give Zeller more opportunities this season. Zeller posted a 35.5 inch vertical leap at the NBA draft combine in 2013, which was the best jump for a player standing 6’9” or taller in the past decade. Combine that stat with his play-making ability shown at Indiana, and Zeller’s athleticism should not be questioned.
To make the much needed jump this season, Zeller needs to get stronger and develop his outside shot. The outside shot would open things up in the paint for Jefferson to work and further the Hornets’ offensive development. By getting stronger, Zeller would lessen his status as a defensive liability. The Hornets have solid defenders in Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and newly acquired Lance Stephenson, but the team needs a stronger defensive presence from the front court. Zeller needs to realize that his opportunity may not last much longer if he does not improve. Charlotte drafted Noah Vonleh with the 9th pick in this year’s draft. Vonleh theoretically plays the same position as Zeller, so it should be interesting to see who emerges from the offseason as the better young player in the front court. The Hornets signed Marvin Williams to lessen the immediate need for either of these two players to dominate, but both should sense the opportunity to play this season.
Cody Zeller, more so than Vonleh, needs to step his game up to avoid being stranded on the bench. Worse than that, Zeller risks being labeled as an NBA draft bust. This thought, once entrenched into everyone’s mind, can linger with a player for his whole career and derail any attempt at being an NBA contributor. Let’s hope for both the Hornets and for Zeller that the second year PF steps his game up this season.