Going back to draft night just a few weeks ago, the consensus among Bobcats fans over the team's selection of Indiana University's Cody Zeller was that they had botched the selection. Over time the pick grew on some, while others maintained their vehemence in opposition to selecting Zeller fourth overall. Though it may be unfair, each game going forward is likely going to be a nightly referendum on his career to the people in the latter category, putting him under a microscope as Zeller and the Bobcats headed to Las Vegas Summer League.
Zeller officially began his career with an exhibition against the San Antonio Spurs' summer league team in the Bobcats' first game. His performance that night failed to stand out, for better or for worse. On the plus side he shot efficiently, going 4-for-9 from the floor while grabbing five rebounds and forcing a block and a steal defensively. Negatively, and these things are to be expected as an incoming player tries to adapt to the speed of the game and as a rookie, Zeller committed five fouls in 30 minutes and turned the ball over three times.
In just his second game, Zeller looked far more comfortable with a 21-point and 13-rebound performance in which he also went 9-for-9 from the charity stripe. Against the Mavericks' diminutive frontcourt, Zeller asserted his dominance, using his athleticism to get out in transition for easy buckets or soar - and he has soared at times, believe me - over helpless defenders for the emphatic dunk. Zeller even exhibited a solid outlet passing ability as well as a generally strong passing game overall, despite his low assist totals.
Ever since that Dallas game, Zeller's confidence has blossomed as he's continued to physically assert himself in games, seemingly at will, against inferior opponents. Watching games so far you can see how dangerous Zeller can be when he combines his physical tools with his basketball skill set. In fact, in the Bobcats' last three games, Zeller has posted a double-double in all but one, and in that game he only missed it by a single rebound.
"It's a lot of God-given ability," said Zeller following Thursday's victory over the Grizzlies. "It's one of my advantages for a big guy: my athleticism. So I try to use it to my advantage."
So far, we've seen how his skillset includes the ability to use his athleticism to take slower defenders off the dribble for easy baskets, which came as a surprise to many. This diversified the Bobcats' attack offensively as Zeller was able to pressure the defense whether in transition, with his back to the basket or off the dribble. Zeller understands that doing this in the NBA will be a much more difficult task, so he's continuing to work on areas of his game like this one in hopes of carrying it over to the next level against better athletes.
Defensively, Zeller has mostly been a positive. His ability to move laterally is impressive as it once again displays his athletic agility and quickness. In summer league he's used this quickness to take a few more gambles than he may be able to in the regular season because he's quick enough to recover back to his defender. Can he do the same at the next level? We'll have to wait and see, but if he can be quick enough, that will help him when he is paired with Al Jefferson in the frontcourt during the regular season.
The negative aspect of Zeller's defensive performance thus far has been his turnovers and fouls. Zeller is a young player playing in his first four summer league games, so this is far from the end of the world, but four fouls and three-and-a-half turnovers per game in 32 minutes per game is a little high. However, I do expect those numbers to decrease as the season unfolds and he gets more experience. For now, though, this is where he's at.
When asked how he feels about his summer league so far, Zeller said feels good about it and that he views it as a good time to find out what works and what doesn't.
"Not too bad," said Zeller when asked for his overall feelings on his performance. "Like I said, I'm not going to get too excited about playing well out here just because the stakes are low. I'm just trying to learn and get better."
And as Zeller has gotten more comfortable and adjusted to the game, his production has increased. Within our very small sample size, Zeller has appeared to show traits of a smart player by learning on the job as quickly as he has. He's found that there are very few defenders in Las Vegas who are capable of guarding him for 40 minutes. Sure, his midrange game still isn't where he would like it to be, but he has found other ways to contribute as he works to improve that particular facet of his game. It would also be great to see him able to get to the line as much as he has against the Mavericks, but he hasn't come close to that since then, so it would be wonderful to see him do that consistently as well.
Zeller understands that there will be ups and downs to his rookie season. he views each experience as an opportunity for improvement, adding, "I'm just gonna try to get better each day and learn from the wins and the losses."
Following his rather unassuming debut, Zeller has gone on to be remarkably efficient for the Bobcats without much in the way of strong point guard play, which by no means makes things easier for a young big man. Offensively, he's averaging 16.3 points per game on 52 percent shooting while also averaging 9.3 rebounds and contributing the stray assist here and there.
As Zeller alluded, it's dangerous to invest too much into a player's performance at this level. Yet, when a player comes out as Zeller has by showing gradual improvement to become a standout player in the tournament, it attracts eyeballs. In fact, the only big man I saw that has stood out more than Zeller would be the Toronto Raptors' Jonas Valanciunas, who some feel has been the best player in Las Vegas. Still, we hope to see Zeller carry as much of the positives he's exhibited here over to the regular season.
At the least, it's apparent Zeller has shown that there is something there, despite the harsh critical reaction that has been there towards his selection. There also isn't a single player that comes into the league that doesn't have to prove that they belong and Zeller appears to be doing that so far. Will he do that in the regular season? I don't know, you don't know, no one knows. And that's really the key thing to remember in this whole exercise. What we do know is that Zeller's performance this past week is moderately noteworthy, even if he doesn't put too much stock into it, himself.