I don't know if any of you have noticed, but Cody Zeller has been playing really great recently. Despite not being a dominant scorer by any means (his per-game scoring average hovers around eight points), Zeller's quick improvement is a trend continued from last season, where he struggled in his first few months of professional action before becoming a legitimate asset off the bench. Right now, he's coming off the best month of his young career and looking to build on his strong play as the season's playoff races get tighter and tighter.
It would be a strong month for any young player, too. Zeller averaged 12.0 points, 9.4 rebounds, 3.4 assists, and 1.5 blocks per 36 minutes in January, with a .495 field goal percentage. At the beginning of the season, one of the big concerns with Zeller was his shot selection, as he was one of the team's (if not the league's) worst offenders at taking, and missing, the long two. That shot, as frustrating as it may be those who otherwise love Zeller's game, is still a big part of his offensive repertoire. It's just going in so much more often now. Zeller remains a pretty consistent scorer at the rim, but he's now shooting over .400 on shots from 15 feet or longer, which includes one attempted (and one made) three-pointer.
It's not just that end of the court where he's succeeding, too. Defensively, Zeller has been as good as anyone could have realistically expected. He's been able to utilize his quickness against opponents much better this season, and although he still isn't quite as strong as some opposing bigs, he clearly put his offseason weight room sessions to good use. As a result, Zeller doesn't get bodied off nearly as often as his rookie season. More recently, though, he's been even better. His individual defensive rating (the amount of points given up per 100 possessions while the player is on the floor) in January was 87.2, which...suffice to say, is considerably below what the team has been doing all season. Keep in mind the Hornets are a top 10 team in that category. Michael Kidd-Gilchrist has deservedly earned his reputation as one of the best defensive players in the league, and Bismack Biyombo might be the most underrated defensive player in the Eastern Conference, but Zeller is probably the most unsung defensive player in Charlotte.
Zeller has gotten very good at defending the inside shot, holding opponents to .444 shooting from inside the arc. That might sound only average, but it's 4.6% below the league rate against an average defense. This is even more impressive when you consider that Zeller's most frequent frontcourt mate isn't the defensive stalwart Biyombo (like last season), but Al Jefferson, who, try as he might, has just never been a particularly strong defensive player. That leaves Zeller on a lot of isolation situations, but also puts him in the unenviable position of being responsible for shooters too, which explains why one of the only scenarios where Zeller's defense grades out negatively is against three-point shooters, although the defensive system employed by Steve Clifford de-emphasizes closeouts on the catch-and-shoot-- and, the lineups Zeller most often plays in don't give him a lot of help in either regard (especially with Biyombo's injury giving more minutes to Jason Maxiell). To put all of this another way: Cody Zeller's strong defensive play isn't a product of the system. The system is a product of Cody Zeller's strong defensive play.
And, although it's not as surprising as the previous paragraphs, we should probably talk about Zeller's improved passing as well. After Josh McRoberts left in free agency this summer, many of us were (justifiably) worried that his absence would harm the team's ball movement. And, for a little while, that was the case, as the Hornets really struggled to pass effectively for the first month or two of this season (Correlation not necessarily reflecting causation, and yadda yadda, but there's a reason why the team was playing absolutely terribly during that stretch). I mentioned earlier in this article that Zeller had been averaging about three and a half assists per 36 minutes during January, which would place him first among non-point guards on Charlotte's roster. It gets better when you look at how effective his passes are, too. Working particularly well with Gerald Henderson and Lance Stephenson, the two shoot .509 and .462, respectively, after receiving a pass from Zeller. It seems every player that Zeller passes to shoots better as a result of it, except for Kemba Walker, but that exception is another article to be written at a different time. (Ed Note: Are you volunteering? This sounds like volunteering. 10 pages on this by Sunday, MLA style, proper citations-Chris)
So where does Zeller go from here? At this point, it's hard to look at his play and see his marked improvement as anything but natural age progression. For both Zeller and the team, that is incredibly encouraging, and it suggests that the 22-year-old will continue to get better as he gets more experience. The one question that remains is whether Zeller's month of January was caused by extenuating circumstances or flaws in the data. With inevitable minor statistical variance aside, I don't think there's a lot causing Zeller to play as well as he has been that came from outside his own merit. I have to admit that, at the time, I was pretty critical of Rich Cho using the 4th pick in the 2013 NBA Draft on Zeller (and I was not alone!). Right now, though, Cody Zeller is making all of us who booed look absolutely foolish. And the Charlotte Hornets are all the better for it.