It is May of 2015. The Charlotte Hornets, having finished a disappointing season that saw them miss the playoffs, are reshuffling their roster, trying to figure out what went wrong and how to fix it. Steve Clifford is telling people that Cody Zeller was ready to start taking corner 3s in games, expanding his game to a place it had never been before. The team just spent the season turning Zeller into a stretch 4, so that he could be the complimentary piece in the team's front court next to star center Al Jefferson.
Fast forward to the beginning of this season. After some major offseason retooling, Zeller is no longer a stretch 4, but a backup at both the 4 and the 5 for Charlotte, as they try to figure out how best to use Zeller, along with the many new faces.
Zeller came to Charlotte with high expectations. Drafted number four overall, he finished a two-year career at Indiana University that helped put the school back on the map as a basketball powerhouse. He averaging 16.1 points and 7.3 rebounds on 59.1 percent shooting during his time as a Hoosier, and many were wondering how his game would translate to the next level. Zeller had succeeded as a center in college, but Charlotte had just picked up Al Jefferson in free agency — the first star signing for the team is the franchise was reborn. Zeller would have to make the switch to power forward, a position he was not too familiar with playing.
The Hornets continually tried to make Zeller something he was not. But, as bad as it may be to say this, Al Jefferson's injury problems may have been the best thing to happen to Cody Zeller's career.
Jefferson was forced to leave a November 29 contest against the Milwaukee Bucks early due to injury. Clifford, with no other options, moved Zeller back to his natural position of center. Since then, Zeller's numbers and play have skyrocketed.
Coming into this season, Zeller had never averaged more than 7.6 points, 5.8 rebounds, or 24 minutes per game. His career-high field goal percentage for a season was 46.1 percent. Since November 30, when Zeller was inserted into the starting lineup as the Hornets' new 5, he is averaging 10.6 points and 6.6 rebounds in 27.7 minutes while shooting 51.9 from the floor. Zeller is looking more natural in the offense, now that he is being asked to run pick and roll with the likes of Kemba Walker and Nicolas Batum instead of being a stretch 4 expected to consistently hit long jumpers.
This was the core of the problem with Zeller — being asked to play and become something that he simply was not. Able to return to what he knows and does best, Zeller has thrived. But why has his offense improved so much?
The answer is twofold, and already partially answered. First, his off-the-ball-movement has helped make him an ideal "new age" center for the team. Nick Denning did an excellent job of breaking it down in this article, and it is a highly recommended read for all.
Second is shot selection. During the 2014-2015 season, Zeller showed that he could hit a long jumper, but never proved he could hit it consistently. He took 100 shots from between 15- to 19-feet away from the basket (26.8 percent of his total field goals attempted) and made just 39 percent of those shots. Since being named a starter this season, Zeller has taken 28 such shots and has hit far fewer of them, connecting just 25 percent of the time. But those 28 shots represent only 15 percent of his total field goals attempted. Now, the vast majority of his shots (70.1 percent) come from within five feet of the basket, where Zeller is shooting 60.6 percent from (in 2014-2015, he shot 55 percent from within five feet).
With Zeller now getting consistent playing time at his natural position and beginning to build chemistry with Batum and Walker (who have assisted on Zeller baskets more than every other Hornet combined), he is starting to come into his own as a 5. In his first two seasons in the Association, Cody Zeller had three double-doubles and eight double-digit rebounding performances. He already has two double-doubles and six double-digit rebounding games this season.
At the end of the day, the Charlotte Hornets found that to get the best out of Zeller, you don't need to make him spread out and attack using his jumper — you need to make Zeller attack the defense with his high-energy motor and off-the-ball slashing skills. As the NBA continues to evolve into quicker lineups with more emphasis on spreading the floor, that is what will be key for centers — skills that Cody Zeller has already showed that his is more than adequate at.