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What Cody Zeller has to do to be great

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As Cody Zeller enters his second year in the league, it remains to be seen just how great he can become. He has some tools to work with now, but still has some work to do.

Grant Halverson

Some of you will remember draft night 2013. The then-Bobcats had the fourth pick in the draft and many top prizes were still on the board. We heard rumbles of the team taking Indiana's Cody Zeller with the pick, but figured that had to be a smokescreen with players like Nerlens Noel on the board still.

Sure enough, with the fourth pick in the NBA draft, the Charlotte Bobcats selected Cody Zeller out of the University of Indiana.

The reaction was predictable. Fans were unhappy, and the internet was up in arms. Really, it wasn't a bad pick; it just wasn't the one everyone else wanted.

After a strong summer league, Zeller's early season performance caused a lot of uncertainty with fans and if the team made the right selection or not. Zeller looked terribly lost in the offense as if he had no idea where to be and that the game just moved too fast for him. Obviously 45 or 50 games don't make a career, and it helps that the rookie class as a whole was rather unimpressive, but people expect more from the fourth overall pick.

Then February hit and things seemed to click for Zeller. His minutes didn't change, but he began to gather more boards, hit a few more buckets, and dish out a couple more assists than before. It's as if things just "clicked" for Zeller and was able to parlay that into an even better month of March. Zeller would end his rookie season on a high-note, which is what anyone could have hoped for after a sluggish start.

Of course, those two months don't mean much if Zeller can't replicate his late-season success going forward.

He shot over 50 percent in March and April to bring his overall percentage to 42.6 on the season, which is terrible for a big man. The problem here could be his shot selection in that he's taking shots he doesn't yet have the range for. Check this out:

  • 116-206 (56.3 percent) at the rim
  • 16-55 (29.1 percent) from 3-10 feet
  • 7-19 (36.8) from 10-16 feet
  • 36-132 (27.3 percent)  from 16-

Now, Zeller was a 59.2 shooter at Indiana, but he's clearly not in the Big 10 anymore. But this tells us that he can shoot...somewhere in there. He was nearly average at the rim, but everything else is significantly below league average. However, the fact that he is as close to average as is is from 10-16 feet tells us that he should be able to get their from 3-10 feet if the spacing improves along with the ball movement. Being just 21 years old means that he still has time to get better, and as he becomes more and more acclimated to the league, this should happen. Until then, Zeller needs to keep things simple and stay in his lane for now. Not that he'll get better not shooting the ball, but he needs to slowly work into those kinds of shots more.

Also, stop getting your shot blocked. At 7' tall, no one should get their shot blocked 46 times given the minutes he played last year.

One thing that may help is putting on more mass-- which is likely to come naturally as he ages and continually growing into his body. Not just shooting and being able to hold his post down low, but adding a little mass may not hurt on the glass either. The fact that he was a very average rebounding center in college tells me that he may not have a ton of rebounding instincts like a Kevin Love does. However, I refuse to believe that a 21 year old will average 4.3 rebounds per game for the rest of his career; he has to get better. If Zeller is able to become stronger, he may win a few more battles on the boards.

The concern that I have with Zeller putting on mass is him putting on too much. Now, at 7' and 240 pounds we're a ways away from him become too big, but his athleticism is such an in-born advantage, and you'd hate to see him slowed down too much. It's a delicate balance. We saw at summer league what he can do with that when he's comfortable with the speed of the game and going against his opponents, and he's damn near unstoppable at his best.

Another area Zeller should flesh out going forward is his passing ability. In just 17.3 minutes per game he averaged a little over one assist per game, but 2.3 Per 36 Minutes. He also accounted for 10.4 percent of the team's assists when he was on the floor, which, again, isn't terrible for a guy playing 17 minutes per game. You can also tell that he's trying to find others and not a black hole because 44.8 percent of his turnovers came on bad passes instead of  offensive fouls, loose balls or miscellaneous causes. Bad passes were by far the biggest reason for his elevated turnover percentage, but understanding when he can and can't make a pass will go a long way to curbing that problem. And with McRoberts gone, Zeller could really endear himself to Steve Clifford by becoming a ball moving big man.

Aside from passing, Zeller could work his way onto the court on the defensive end.

The first thing that jumps out at you is that Zeller did not commit a slew of fouls-- a rare thing for a rookie big man. Even when prorated for 36 minutes, he still averaged just 4.3 per game. And as Chris noted earlier in the week, the team used Zeller as a rim protector. Don't let his one blocked shot per game average fool you; there's more to the stat than that. Because of Zeller's athleticism and length, just having the threat of a shot blocker alone can alter shots, which is as good as a swat in my book.

While his Defensive Rating and Defensive Win Shares were acceptable, there's one area he can really improve on defensively. That area would be defensive rebounding. Yes, this counts. Defensive rebounding means fewer second chance opportunities for Charlotte's opponent and more possessions for them, as well as being able to control the pace. If Zeller is subbing for Al Jefferson, this is going to mean a big drop-off in this area.

Zeller grabbed just 18.8 percent of available defensive rebounds when he was on the court-- a far cry from Al Jefferson (28.3) and Bismack Biyombo (27.6). Sure, he was higher than McRoberts, but Zeller had a different role than McRoberts in terms of what he was asked to do. Jefferson and Biyombo may be better rebounders, but when you grab fewer than two percent rebounds more than Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, there's a problem. Your seven foot center should not grab just a couple more rebounds than your small forward.

If Zeller wants to maximize his potential he should focus on what he does well now-- passing, scoring-at-the-rim-kinda, and playing solid defense-- while working on his weaknesses-- rebounding, shooting from outside of two feet, and continue to understand the NBA game more. Sure, he could stand to hit the weight room more, but shouldn't add too much and compromise his elite athleticism. I know that speaking with Zeller at his first summer league that he won't get caught up on two months of strong play and will keep working towards improving. Based on what we've seen, he's getting there, but at least there are things to build upon for Zeller. (Statistical support for this piece by Basketball-Reference.com)