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Cody Zeller and drafting whiteness: A glance at the intersection of race and talent

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Taking a look at the strange intersection of skill, race, and expectations.

Sam Sharpe-USA TODAY Sports

Cody Zeller is one of the weirder white basketball players in the NBA.

First, the obvious: Zeller is 7 feet tall. Sure, that’s not so uncommon in professional basketball, but just for fun, consider the fact that being a 7-foot tall human is so rare that the Center for Disease Control doesn’t even keep track of statistics for them. Zeller also has two brothers who are just as tall as him, a factoid which most fans are at least peripherally aware of, due to its near-constant use as anecdotal filler for broadcast producers and commentators around the country.

(Quick tangent: If you’d like to do some fuzzy math, per an old SI article, you can reasonably determine, that of men between the ages of 20 - 40, fewer than 70 of them are 7 feet tall. Pair that with my own rough estimate based on the distribution of 45 million males between that age range, and you have a .0000015 [5 repeating] chance of being a 7-foot tall male between the ages of 20 and 40. And that’s just one individual. Probability of having three in the same family given these admittedly imperfect approximations? 3.375e-18, or whatever the hell that means.)

Potentially more interesting, however and based on my own personal version of eye-test fan-science is the fact that Cody Zeller is the only WABP (White, American-Born Player) in the league who holds the distinction, possibly with the exception of Louis Amundson and Mason Plumlee, of being so bad at something so often associated with WABP’s, while at the same time owning one of the more defining attributes that’s so disassociated with WABP’s to the point that it’s literally the title of an early '90s buddy comedy starring Wesley Snipes and Woody Harrelson, as street ball hustlers.

That is, Cody Zeller can in fact jump, but cannot shoot.

In fact, the degree and extent to which he can and cannot do each of these often racially-correlated things, is actually stunning at least in a basketball scouting and personnel context.

Cody Zeller set the record for the highest standing vertical leap of any draft participant 6’9’’ and over.

Cody Zeller’s 3-point shooting percentage for his career is 9.1 percent.

These facts are a bit dramatic, but the point remains. Cody did indeed set a record in big-man jumping at the combine, and so far has been a horrible shooter from anything resembling range. But it’s not so much odd that Zeller has been a horrible shooter, as much as it's strange why he was expected to be such a good one in the first place.

Zeller is a unique NBA player in that, so far in his NBA career he has failed to live up to expectations while at the same time having somehow surpassed them.

Usually when the selection of a player in the draft is classified as a "miss" or "bust" or whatever word Chad Ford would likely use when, uh, "reviewing" past drafts, it generally has to do with talent. It is, in a sense, longitudinal. Player A simply did not have enough good-to-great basketball playing ability in their being, and therefore fell short. However, hardly ever does a player provide the original expected amount of production, yet in a radically different way than was originally anticipated. Rarely are player projections so off the mark in a lateral sense, in that, Player A simply has an entirely different skill set than everyone thought.

There is occasionally and only occasionally talk in professional sports, of a sort of racial prejudice that is in fact the opposite of what is most often seen, felt, and institutionalized in day-to-day life. That is, there will from time to time be talk of WABP’s not getting drafted out of college due to fear that their skills won’t translate to the professional level of their chosen sport this is most common in both football or basketball. Scouts and general managers freak at the prospect of losing their job because of a disappointing white running back, similar (although to a lesser degree) to how they once felt — and most probably still feel about black quarterbacks. Even now-Super Bowl-bound, Mr. New-Face-of-the-NFL, "El Dinosaurio" dealt with this kind of thing.

Which brings us back to Zeller. As At The Hive’s Russell Varner pointed out recently, the big man has finally found his positional home in the NBA, and it’s at center. (Quick tangent no. 2: A big deal is made about basketball now being a position-less sport, but that's kind of a misnomer. Positions only ever existed to delineate skill sets. Who and what [skill-wise] a team needs on the floor to be successful. Those needs, and the positions that filled those needs have definitely changed. But the fact that there is a need to be met, and an accompanying skill set, has not, and probably never will, in fact, change.)

What is interesting is whether or not race-related basketball stereotypes played into the drafting of Cody Zeller. Did Jordan and/or Cho think that Zeller would be able to develop into a stretch 4 beside Al Jefferson because they thought he could shoot, and/or because he was a WABP, the many of which develop into at least decent shooters for their position? It’s an interesting question, only because Zeller could never shoot at Indiana although sure, oftentimes big men who can shoot are just not allowed to by their college coaches. What about high school? Tough to say, no 3-point attempts in the McDonald’s All-American game or the Derby Classic. Cody himself has said that he "shot 3's back in high school, just not necessarily in games." AAU? Who the hell knows.

Being white has traditionally been such an indicator of shooting ability that it’s to some degree probably played to Zeller’s benefit throughout his career, much in the same way left handedness plays into said hands of players who use that particular appendage. Meaning, you don’t expect guys to go left on you, and you certainly don’t expect white players especially in professional basketball to not be able to shoot, or for that matter jump over you, like Cody can.

But what if that benefit extended beyond the court and into the front office? What if Cody was drafted because WABP's can, more often than not, shoot? And if so, does it really matter? Even if Jordan and Cho subconsciously drafted Zeller because they thought he'd be able to shoot, can you blame them for making that kind of generalization? I don't know, but it's interesting to think about, how, even at the highest levels of athletic personnel decision-makingespecially during an analytic boom in professional sports some decisions, really haven't much changed.