One day you're drafting a big man out of Indiana fourth over all, and the next thing you know three years have passed, and time for him to embrace a greater role on the team. Let's go!
2015 should be seen as a nice step forward in Zeller's sophomore year. Zeller increased his playing time from 17 minutes to 24 minutes, while increasing his efficiency from the field. In a player's second year, you want to see them improve enough, and earn more playing time, and Zeller accomplished this. While Zeller's overall production increased, his per 36 minutes numbers remain largely the same as his rookie season. This doesn't mean that Zeller didn't improve, or that his improvement is lessened; just that it may not be as much as we may have thought. Big men take time, and Zeller is only 22 yet, and seeing any measure of progress is what is important.
Really, Zeller is not as efficient as you would like him to be. Sure, he increased his field goal percentage from 42.6 percent to 46.1 percent, but that's not where you want your big man who takes half of his shots within three feet of the rim to be (source: Basketball-Reference.com).
See, at the rim, Zeller was below average last season. Continuing to improve around the rim, and getting stronger should help him improve at the rim. Yet, the easiest way for Zeller to improve may come from refining his shot selection. Did you notice all of the longer twos? If you're going to take 37.3 percent of your shots from between 16-feet and the three-point line, you better make more than 35.3 percent of them. Now, a lot of that may be systemic; the Hornets shot the fifth-most midrange jumpers in the league last season.. So far in preseason, the Hornets have attempted 8.6 fewer midrange shots than last season-- good for 13th-- and taking fewer long twos overall may trickle down to Zeller. Of course, it's preseason, so it's hard to take away too much, but it will be an interesting trend to watch going into the season.
Wanted: a rim protector
Perhaps the biggest questions surrounding this Hornets team coming in this season is who will provide the rim protection. Depending on who you ask, the need for a rim protector can be overstated if you have a strong team defensive concept in place. In failure of that, Zeller is one of the names that people have mentioned as a candidate to fill that void. I mean, Zeller has the size and athleticism that would have you believe that he could, in theory, step into such a role.
The ability to be a shot blocker is one that is difficult to teach. Guys can improve some as time goes on, but is a skill that is largely reliant on a player's instincts. Blocking a shot requires understanding of things like awareness, and timing, and these are things that Zeller appears to be capable of. Look at his help defense in these photos where Zeller helps Jason Maxiell with Amare Stoudemire last season.
Here Jose Calderon just brought the ball up court and began to work the ball into Stoudemire in the high post.
In the next slide here, we see that Zeller knows where the action is, and turns his head to see how Maxiell is doing with Stoudemire. You can see that it's not going well, and that Zeller is going to need to do something immediately if he plans on doing anything at all.
(Screenshots courtesy of NBA.com.)
And Zeller successfully rotates over towards the basket, and swats Stoudemire's shot harmlessly away. Of course this one play doesn't mean that Zeller will automatically become an elite shot blocker now that he may be asked to fill the role of rim protector more. However, it does tell is that it may be worth asking him to try it out although he only blocked 1.2 shots per 36 minutes last year. Even if Zeller doesn't make the play, altering an opponent's shot, and forcing a miss is just as good as a blocked shot. The fact that his opponent field goal percentages near the basket are good-though-not-elite is also another encouraging sign.
Coming into his third year, the Hornets are going to need Zeller to continue to improve this season. Zeller improved as a shooter, but still needs to be more efficient, and refine his shot selection. Because the Hornets went all-in with their aggressive summer, it's clear they're thinking playoffs, and Zeller's health will be as important as his production. Last season he played 62 games, but he can likely miss half of that this year because of their frontcourt depth. Not that missing 20 games means he's injury prone, but staying healthy will be key for him, and potentially the team to have a successful season.