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2014-15 Player Report Cards: Cody Zeller

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Cody Zeller had an impressive sophomore season for the Hornets, building on some important strengths and getting better on some weaknesses. Let's review it all.

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Second year big man out of Indiana, Cody Zeller, had exactly what you want out from a sophomore season – improvement across the board. With increased minutes, Zeller put up better numbers across the board, especially in regards to efficiency categories and on the defensive end. The Hornets season was marred by injuries and the uncertainty of which teammates you’ll play with night to night can be certainly hard on a young player. However, Zeller was arguably one of the best Hornets this year.

Performance

According to ESPN’s Real Plus-Minus (RPM) metric, Zeller had an outstanding season – easily the best of the Hornets roster. Zeller posted a RPM of plus-4.35 on the year, with breakdowns of plus-1.12 on offense and plus 3.23 on the defensive end. His total RPM number ranked fifth in the entire NBA among power forwards, even ahead of notable All-Stars like LaMarcus Aldridge, Blake Griffin, and Kevin Love.

Now that’s not to say Zeller had a better season than the above players – RPM is role dependent. What it does tell us is that Zeller was asked to fulfill a role on this Hornets team, and he fulfilled that role incredibly well – well enough in fact to be the fifth-rated power forward. This Hornets team fell short of expectations thanks to just awful injury luck week after week. Zeller’s improvement and play this year might have been the brightest spot of the season.

As noted above, Zeller was given more minutes and turned them into even more efficient play. He eventually took over the starting spot next to centers Al Jefferson or Bismack Biyombo, both guys who need to play close to the rim. Zeller had a similar role at Indiana, so his ability to expand his game out to the midrange was an important and very necessary step to fit in as an NBA four. He took a higher percentage of his shots from the midrange area – 10 feet out to the 3-point line – and hit more of them as well.

From 16 feet to the 3-point line – the area where a big man has to "pop" in a pick and roll – Zeller shot an impressive 35.3%, way up from his rookie year mark of 27.3%. The Hornets struggled with spacing all year long and Zeller gave them at least a little room to operate in the paint. He showed nice chemistry in pick and roll and two-man game action with both Kemba Walker and Lance Stephenson, although there’s still some room for improvement in that area – he was in the 46th percentile in terms of efficiency as the roll man of a pick and roll. Again, probably a bit of that is skewed by spacing, but that will have to be figured out, as the roster likely won’t change much before next year.

Growth

Interestingly, Zeller saw his usage dip in his second year, down to 15.6% from 18.9% his rookie year. Whether he turns into a focal part of the offense or someone who can screen, do the dirty work, and get offensive rebounds – think Tristan Thompson – will be an important part of the Hornets future. His advanced stats were better this year – he posted a higher WS/48 (win shares per 48), BPM (Box Plus-Minus), and VORP (Value Over Replacement Player). The Hornets rarely, if ever, ran any action specifically through Zeller, though he showed at times he could handle it. If given the opportunity next year, he’ll need to prove it’s a worthwhile decision.

While Zeller was able to expand his game out to the mid-range area, the Hornets might need him to push it even farther to the 3-point line. Rumors are that he’s working on it offseason – he confirmed it with me before the year this season but never got the opportunity to showcase it – and if him and/or rookie Noah Vonleh can consistently stretch the defense, that changes the entire Hornets offense and potential for next year. He has a good stroke and was efficient near the 3-point line this year – we’ll see if he can take a step back next year literally and take a step forward figuratively.

Top Play

No words necessary.

Off-Court

Zeller underwent shoulder surgery about a month ago and his tentative recovery timetable was set at about three months. While he recovers, he’s spending time posting selfies…

…and TWEETING ABOUT IMPORTANT THINGS. Like The Bachelorette.

Here’s to a speedy and healthy recovery. As well as much Bach drama.

Future

The future is certainly bright for Zeller – along with fellow big man and Indiana alumnus Noah Vonleh, point guard Kemba Walker, and wing Michael Kidd-Gilchrist – the Hornets have a solid foundation. If the Hornets can use the upcoming NBA Draft to pair those four young players with a shooting guard or if last year’s second first-round pick, P.J. Hairston, can take a step up, the Hornets will likely find themselves back in the playoff picture next year.

Zeller showed last year that he’s the Hornets’ power forward, both in the present in the future. Watching him and MKG play, it’s hard not to be excited about their futures – very rarely do you see top-four picks combine their top-level talent with elite hustle. Zeller is an incredibly hard worker both on and off the court. If there’s any Hornet I’m not worried about putting 100% effort in this offseason to get better, it’s Zeller. Until next season.