This year's draft was loaded with surprises in the lottery, and it started from the beginning. The Cavaliers drafted Anthony Bennett first overall and we were off, every mock draft aflame in seconds.
Many predictions had Nerlens Noel, Ben McLemore or Alex Len all gone by the Bobcats' fourth pick. Meanwhile in reality, all were available.
And then they shoved aside all the preconceived notions of who analysts thought should have been picked and drafted Cody Zeller, the athletic offensive-minded 7-footer out of Indiana.
Reactions were mixed, to say the least, whether from fans or from analysts.
I'm not even completely sure what to make of the pick, but here goes nothing.
Zeller is a mixed bag, from the pure basis of physical measurements. Seven feet tall in shoes, Zeller's wingspan and standing reach measure up poorly to other prospects of the same height: compare Zeller's 6'10.75" wingspan and 8'10" reach to DraftExpress' database average by height of player's his same height with 7'1.9" wingspans and 9'1.3". However, for what he lacks in arm length, he makes up in vertical athleticism and quickness. His no step vertical are both well above the average measurements of power forwards or centers, over a half foot better, in fact. His times in the lane agility and 3/4 court sprint were impressive, too, besting the averages for any position in each. He may not be the supremely explosive athletic specimen, but he's a better athlete than people are giving him credit for.
One of the major concerns about Zeller in this department aside from his arm length is his strength. At times, Zeller was quite uncomfortable holding ground in the post and could get pushed around. He'll have to bulk up to help in this regard, to which he's said he'd like to add 15-20 pounds to his frame, given it doesn't affect his speed and athleticism much.
The Bobcats indicated in their draft press conference that Zeller will be a power forward and can be a stretch 4 for the team. It seems they're placing a lot of trust in this regard based on his draft workout, in which he hit three-pointers with consistency. However, his track record as a jump shooter at Indiana doesn't look promising, as he hit zero of two 3-pointer attempts in his entire college career. That said, as a power forward, he played out of position as a center for Indiana and didn't get to show his shooting as much. Still, I find it hard to believe playing center as opposed to power forward would limit him to only 32 total jump shots in his two seasons in college. He has fine mechanics as indicated by his consistent free throw shooting percentages, but he'll have to get more comfortable with his jump shot if he wants to be a true stretch power forward.
Zeller also brings an impressive offensive versatility. With his quickness and agility, he can be a threat on pick and rolls in slipping screens and maneuvering down low. Zeller consistently contributed as a highly efficient scorer for Indiana, with true shooting percentages well above 60 percent in his freshman and sophomore seasons. He can face up or work in the low post. Zeller has great coordination, quick feet, good hands and can finish with either hand, as well. With these tools, he's shown to be a talented threat in the post with touch on his shots with his back to the basket as far out as 8 or so feet.
Another major thing that people haven't seemed to discuss much is his ability to draw fouls. He ranked 13th in the country in drawing fouls with an impressive 7 fouls drawn per 40 minutes for a free throw rate (free throws attempted per 100 field goals attempted) of 73.2 percent and about 10 attempted free throws per 40 minutes, which is spectacular.
In transition, Zeller is undoubtedly a top talent. He runs the floor extremely well due to his speed, motor and coordination. At Indiana, he got 14 percent of his offense there and scored on 80 percent of his shots for a PPP (points per possession) of 1.4. You can look for him as the big man filling the hole coming down the lane as a quick trailer for a finish splitting a couple defenders or possibly even leading the break, beating defenders and becoming a big target for an outlet pass and easy finish in transition. In addition, his motor and quickness in transition can be a major plus even when pulling back for a halfcourt set because he can take advantage of early low-post positioning before the defense gets set.
The transition from college competition to the NBA level of talent and size will be the main question here. Clearly Zeller will need to put on that 15-20 pounds to work in the post and be able to get more physical. He could get pushed off the block by more physical players in college, which forced him into turnovers at a bit of an alarming rate (17 percent of his possessions were turnovers). His deficiency in lower body strength as it is now will lead to a lot of post positioning either given up or pushed out of the paint. As a power forward, Zeller will cause some interesting matchups because he has a size advantage over many power forwards but if matched up on centers, he can beat them with his quickness when facing up or with spin moves in the post. Due to this mismatch, he could become a solid threat to draw a lot of fouls here in the NBA, too. If he truly has developed a consistent jump shot, being able to stretch the floor could prove another asset. The pick and roll combination he could make with Kemba Walker could be very interesting, pairing a supremely quick guard with a quick roll man that can punish defenses if they don't rotate fast enough.
Clearly the Bobcats drafted Zeller based on their trust in his offensive skill set and the potential to overcome an overwhelming dearth of frontcourt scoring talent.
Defense and rebounding
On this end of the floor, Cody Zeller is much less versatile. He has a solid basketball IQ and plays smart defense, but his lack of toughness in the post is concerning.
Starting with the good, Zeller shows the ability to play great pick and roll defense in the NBA like he did in college. He has very quick feet, great coordination and can hedge and trap defenders. He reads defenses well and rotates quickly and intelligently.
Where most have their concerns is defending in the post. Zeller gives up position far too easily due to his lack of strength and toughness to hold his ground going against fellow big men who want to bang down low in the paint. His poor wingspan returns to haunt here as it hurts his ability to defend entry passes, though his quickness and IQ can definitely help create turnovers in this regard.
He also isn't a shot-blocking threat and avoids taking hard fouls, often staying on the ground with his arms up as opposed to challenging at the rim and risking a foul.
On the glass, Zeller's length and unwillingness to be physical will likely be an issue despite his quickness and athleticism. He performed well in college as a rebounder, but whether he takes that into the NBA with his wingspan and physical nature remains to be seen.
Fit on the Bobcats
Zeller's offense is pretty much fully developed at this point, save for his jump shooting. This versatility is desperately needed by Charlotte, who hasn't had a post player that can create their own offense since, well, uh, yeah. His ability to work either facing up or with his back to the basket and in the post should fit well in the Bobcats' offense, though a bunch of this revolves on whether Zeller improves his lower body strength and ability to maintain positioning in the post. If he adds a jump shot, all the better.
Defensively, his basketball IQ and aptitude to rotate quickly will help inside and out. However, Zeller's reluctance to challenge shots at the rim is a big concern, though I would think the coaching staff can help fix that. Though being a rim-protector is a major plus, I think it's mitigated by Biyombo's presence there. As long as Zeller can rotate to force opposing offenses into more passes, Biyombo will be the shot-blocking threat and that's OK. His rebounding weaknesses could be covered by Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Biyombo, though I'm not so sure that's the case.
With Zeller in the mix, it appears the Bobcats may be intent on bringing back Gerald Henderson. That starting lineup would be Kemba Walker / Gerald Henderson / Michael Kidd-Gilchrist / Cody Zeller / Bismack Biyombo. Running an uptempo offense would go well for this team. Zeller runs the break so well, as does much of the lineup, giving Kemba Walker targets to help him spread the offense.
One of the main complaints I've seen is that Zeller isn't a franchise-changing talent, which is true. However, that argument seems to never have nuance to it. The argument about a pick not having the potential to change a franchise always seems to go in the direction of the team not picking a guy who could have been great and never in the direction of the team could have taken a guy who has an equal potential to stay the same player. There simply wasn't a sure-fire hit prospect here. I liked Noel and Len, but the potential they have to not pan out clearly scared off more teams than just the Bobcats. With Zeller, the Bobcats knew what they would get from a pure talent perspective, and whether he becomes a starter for the future now depends on what he makes of it in developing into a player ready to deal with the rigors of NBA physicality and a long schedule.
Those not buying Zeller's fit here or promise as a great talent argue that Zeller won't develop the physical toughness to become a good scoring threat, that he'll turn the ball over because of physical limitations and get his shot blocked a lot. Those who do like Zeller's promise think he'll add the jump shot to his offensive arsenal and can create a matchup problem for opposing defenses.
People weren't be wowed by this pick in a great way, but I think it left the front office with fewer question marks than other prospects.
I'm still not sure how well this pick will turn out, but taking Zeller with Noel, Len and McLemore still on the board could write Rich Cho and this organization's future, for better or for worse.
I think draft grades so soon after a draft and before prospects have even played a minute of Summer League are rather silly, but if you need some instant gratification, I guess I'd give the Bobcats a B on the simple five-letter scale because I think his offensive versatility is a good match, though I have my concerns about his presence on the glass and in the post trying to create his positioning. We'll see how this plays out in the few years to come and then we can really assess the pick.