Cody Zeller's second NBA season didn't go as he'd planned it.
The Charlotte Hornets center missed 19 of the team's final 20 games with a shoulder injury, which later was determined to be a smorgasbord of distinct but loosely related ailments. Zeller had a torn rotator cuff in his right shoulder, a bone spur, and a labrum that needed surgical repair.
Zeller said at media day that he's been able to practice with no restrictions for about four weeks, and that being unable to play, practice, and work out like he normally would was a difficult adjustment for him. Now, he's optimistic.
"(My shoulder is) doing great," Zeller said. "I don't think I realized how bad it was until I had a healthy shoulder."
Doctors took a big flap off of Zeller's right labrum to repair an abnormality Zeller said he's had since high school. The bone spur, too, was from back in high school.
Being unable to practice normally meant Zeller had to adjust his workout routine this summer and focus on his lower body. "For about a month and a half after surgery I couldn't do any upper body work but I could still run and lift lower body," Zeller said.
"Which is the worst stuff to do. Leg day was every day," he joked. "My lower body is probably the strongest it's ever been."
Now that restrictions have been lifted, Zeller's back to working on his game. Earlier this summer, head coach Steve Clifford suggested that Zeller would be working on his 3-point shot. While he's not a great shooter from deep, that isn't unfamiliar territory for Zeller.
"I shot 3's back in high school, just not necessarily in games," Zeller said. "I'm not reinventing the wheel."
Still, Zeller acknowledged that there's still a lot to learn. "It's just getting comfortable with the footwork and spacing the 3 off the pick and roll. It's been a huge adjustment," he said.
And it's an adjustment Zeller needs to make quickly. The Hornets have a glut of power forwards this season with similar skill sets, so if Zeller wants to find a spot in Clifford's rotation, he's going to have to prove his worth. The big man posted a VORP of 0.9 last season, meaning that while he's a slightly above average player at his position, he's still a ways from being "good."
Adding a consistent 3-point shot will help him find minutes over Frank Kaminsky, Marvin Williams, and Spencer Hawes, all of whom have shown the ability to knock down shots from behind the arc at a decent clip. Spacing the floor is crucial for the Hornets, and Zeller is aware of that.
"I think (3-point shooting) will help my game individually as well as the team," Zeller said. "It'll open up a lot of driving lanes for Kemba and post ups for Al."
However, Zeller believes his greatest strength, particularly over his competition at the four, is his defense. He sees his role as sort of a defensive anchor — the player who calls sets and instructs his teammates on where to go.
"My biggest strength on defense is probably my team defense and getting guys organized," Zeller said. "Especially when me and MKG played together — and I don't know the stats on this — but I think when we were playing together, we were the two to bring energy on the defensive end and getting guys organized in transition. At the end of the year, when both of us went down, I think our defense kind of lacked."
Zeller is right. According to 82 games, the Hornets allowed 0.8 fewer points per 100 minutes when he and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist shared the floor together. While that might not seem like a significant number, the Hornets were a relatively poor defensive team last season, especially compared to the year before. Any improvement on that end of the floor is welcomed.
Whether or not Zeller finds a role in the Hornets' rotation remains to be seen, though most analysts expect he'll start come Oct. 28, when the Hornets open the season against the Miami Heat in Florida. Preseason starts on Oct. 3, and that should give us a better picture of how Zeller fits into the rotation.