Cody Zeller was viewed by many (and most importantly, by many in the Charlotte Hornets organization) as an athletic big man that would eventually turn into the team's future stretch-four. Entering year three, Zeller hasn't developed into that specific type of player, and it doesn't look like he will. But don't panic! Instead, Zeller has turned into an unique NBA center, one that excels on offense with his movement off the ball, and ability to finish at the rim.
Zeller is averaging a modest 9.2 points and 6.1 rebounds, playing just 24.7 minutes a game. He's the starter while Al Jefferson recovers from injury, and whether he remains the starter or not once Jefferson returns is a moot point regarding his minutes since they haven't changed even in Jefferson's absence (it is worth noting though that his minutes have increased of late, as he has played 30+ minutes in three of the last four games). Zeller's defense isn't keeping him off the floor, in fact he's one of the better rim protectors (actually, he's really the only semblance of a rim protector Charlotte has) on the team, as opponents shoot 45.1 percent at the rim when defended by Zeller, which is currently ninth best in the league. Edit: Thanks to reader Etansco for pointing out Zeller's actual defended FG% at the rim. The original number was for shots within six feet.
So Zeller isn't a liability on defense, but he has a tendency to disappear on offense, and his outside shooting leaves a lot to be desired. Past 10 feet, Zeller is 11-53, which is a field goal percentage of 20.7 percent. He was supposed to start attempting (and making) 3-pointers this season, but he is 0-9 from beyond the arc. Understand that while this should be a concern, it does not spell the end of Cody Zeller, or suggest he has no future in the Hornets rotation.
Zeller has improved his shooting percentage over the last three seasons in one area -- at the rim. Last season, he shot a respectable 55 percent from with shots within five feet or less. This season, that percentage is up to 62.5, and he's attempting a lot more per game. In 62 games last season, Zeller attempted 202 shots from within five feet. Through only 36 games this season, he's attempted 160, which puts him on pace to shatter last season's number.
Currently, he ranks third on the team in field goal percentage at the rim, with only Jefferson and Jeremy Lamb ranking higher. However, since Jefferson is out, and Lamb is a guard, Zeller is currently the team's best low posting scoring threat. Unlike Jefferson, Zeller does this by moving off the ball. Taking a look at his most recent game against the Hawks, all six of his made field goals came at the rim, and by moving off of pick-and-rolls or by moving into space as the ball was rotated around:
Notice Zeller's movement. In almost every play, Zeller cuts to the basket, either as the roll man, or by cutting to the hoop as the ball is rotated. This aspect of Zeller's game has always been solid, but he's benefiting from having additional playmakers on the floor -- Nicolas Batum in this case. Zeller has developed a nice chemistry with Batum this season, and it's paying off for the big man.
Much like Jefferson discovered that few players could guard him as a back-to-the-basket post scorer, Zeller has discovered that by using his athleticism and length, he can create easy shot opportunities for himself by moving off the ball. While most of Zeller's points came in the half-court against Atlanta, Zeller's movement into scoring lanes works in transition as well, as Pau Gasol discovered last season:
Most centers in the league, even the athletic ones, don't move as well as Zeller.
While Zeller has figured out a way he can impact the game offensively, he shouldn't abandon improving mid-range jump shot. The percentages are bad, and if that continues, opposing teams can gameplan to prevent Zeller from effectively cutting to the hoop. In the same way Michael Kidd-Gilchrist excels at attacking the hoop with the ball, he won't ever maximize that particular skill unless his jumpshot improves. The same is true for Zeller. If opposing teams have to guard him as a jump shooter, it opens up more ways for Zeller to score -- in particular, the pump-fake, one right-handed dribble that typically finishes with a slam dunk.
Even though Zeller's role as the center came about due to circumstance, it's becoming increasingly clear Zeller's career in the NBA will be as the five man, instead of the stretch-four. His offensive potential does rely on the play-making of others, but if he can continue to improve this part of his game, he could change the course of his career in an unexpected, but positive direction.
Disclaimer: Even though this is a sponsored post with affiliate links, all of the opinions in this post are my own. And as an FYI, FanDuel provided me funds to play its daily fantasy games.
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