The start to this season has exactly gone as planned for the Hornets, to put it nicely. The offense is nowhere near where we expected it to be. The defense, the calling card of the team last year, is trying to get back to the standards set by last year's squad. The offseason pickups that were supposed to help change the team have proven to be inconsistent in the early going. But not all is doom and gloom — just look at second-year pro Cody Zeller.
Zeller has become a solid piece of the Charlotte Hornets' puzzle, a lynchpin for the team coming off the bench. He, along with Gary Neal and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, have been the early season surprises and team MVP candidates. Through 11 games, Zeller is averaging 7.9 points and 5.4 rebounds in just over 23 minutes a game coming off the bench, while shooting more than 50% from the floor and 70% from the free throw line. Of the Hornets' top 11 lineups based on plus/minus, Cody Zeller is in nine of them. It is early in the season, but that is still quite the impressive statistic.
So what exactly is Zeller doing differently than last year? How has he taken the leap to another level and managed to (so far) avoid any semblance of a sophomore slump?
After spending far too long looking over the statistics at NBA.com and Basketball-Reference.com, I believe it has mainly come down to his shooting.
This is the biggest reason for the new and improved Cody Zeller — everything about his shooting is better than it was a year ago. He is taking and making more shots than he did last season while shooting smarter. Take a look at these charts.
These charts show Zeller's field goal percentage and shooting efficiency from last season, respectively. Notice the obscene amount of blue on both charts. Now, notice that blue on these charts is bad. Therefore, both of these charts show Zeller was not the best shooter last season.
For those who prefer numbers, let me share those with you too. During his rookie season, Zeller took 131 shots from 16 to 24 feet from the basket, making 27.5 percent of them. He took 31 shots from 8 to 16 feet from the basket, making 32.3 percent of those. Finally, Zeller took 241 shots from 8 feet or less and made just 52.3 percent of those shots. Additionally, he took 38 shots in the paint, but outside the restricted area. He made only 32.3 percent of those shots.
So, to recap: Cody Zeller's shooting last year was not the best.
Unfortunately, there are not any charts out yet to help show Zeller's shooting improvements, so you will only have numbers for this part.
Let's a take a look at those same shooting statistics for Cody Zeller through 11 games in the 2014-2015 season, shall we? So far, Zeller has taken 31 shots from 16 to 24 feet from the hoop. He has made 34.4 percent of these. Zeller has taken exactly one shot from 8 to 16 feet. He made that shot. Zeller has taken 29 shots from 8 feet and under. He is currently shooting 69 percent on those shots. And on shots in the paint but not in the restricted area? Zeller has only taken two shots there. He made both of them.
Additionally, let's take a look at Cody Zeller's jump shot numbers. In his rookie season, he shot just over 26 percent on jumpers. This year, Zeller is shooting 40 percent.
These numbers are a big reason why Zeller's field goal percentage has jumped from 42.6 percent last season to 51.6 percent this season, despite the fact that he is now taking more shots per game. Let us also not forget to mention his true shooting percentage of 57.2 percent (up from 49.8 percent last year), offensive rating of 103.5 (second-best on the team) and net rating of 3.2 (third-best on the team). The craziest part is that Zeller's numbers have improved that much while shooting 3 of 11 on layups this season (!!!!!!). Surely, that number will soon go up, and just imagine what Zeller's numbers will be like when they do.
It also helps that Zeller seems to have grow accustomed to coming off the bench and that he is getting more minutes. Last year, Zeller averaged 16.8 minutes a game coming off the bench, with just a 98 offensive rating, -3.5 net rating and a player impact estimate (which I like to think of as NBA.com's version of the player efficiency rating) of 8.5. Through the first 11 games of this year, Zeller is averaging 23.1 minutes off the bench with the above mentioned offensive and net ratings and a player impact estimate of 9.7 (For those curious, that would put him eighth on the team, though two of the players in front of him are Noah Vonleh and Bismack Biyombo, who have combined to play six games this year.).
Again, this is all just 11 games into an 82-game season, so it's still pretty early in this marathon of a season. But early returns show that Zeller's offensive and overall game have taken off thanks to improved shooting from the second year pro out of Indiana.