Decision time is drawing closer for the Charlotte Hornets, who have less than a week to decide whether or not to extend Cody Zeller. If no extension is offered, Zeller will become a restricted free agent next summer. Unlike in recent years, when the decisions to extend Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Kemba Walker were no brainers, and quite frankly, relieving, the decision to extend Zeller isn’t quite as clear.
While I’d love for Zeller to be back (my twitter name isn’t solely to show off my love of Matthew McConaughey floating around intergalactic bookshelves after all) I also recognize, that unlike MKG and Walker, Zeller hasn’t quite established a long-term role with the team. Zeller has shown he can be a productive player, but he’s only improved by small amounts in three seasons, and until recently, he’d struggled to find a position that best suited him. He was supposed to be an athletic power forward that would face up and knock down outside jumpers, but he’s a career 30 percent shooter from midrange, and 16.7 percent from the 3-point line. Last season, his numbers were below his career averages.
It all turned around when he moved to the center position. Suddenly he was using his athleticism to beat defenders off cuts or blow by them off the dribble and finish with a one-handed dunk. He found a position that best utilized his crazy athleticism, but the scary thing is the switch only happened after Al Jefferson got hurt, which makes me wonder what we’d be saying about Zeller had he remained at power forward.
Of course, the switch did happen, and we know now that Zeller is best as a center. The problem is he hasn’t played well enough, or enough games, for Clifford and company to name him the starter. This summer was important for his development, unfortunately, what appears to be the worst bone bruise of all time kept him out of Team USA activities in July, along with much of training camp and all of preseason. He practiced fully on Monday, and he’s confident he’ll be able to go Wednesday, but it’s likely he won’t be quite game ready given how much time he’s spent off the court.
And time spent off the court is likely playing a large part in the decision to extend him. Despite not playing a game, the team didn’t hesitate to extend Jeremy Lamb before last season started, but Lamb participated in camp and preseason. Whatever he showed off in practice was enough to convince the front office to sign him then, rather than the following summer.
Zeller, for the most part, didn’t get that chance, and that’s probably why he won’t get extended before October 31. Before the Hornets commit long-term, they’ll want insurances that Zeller cements a role for himself in the roster. Plus, the team has flexibility at the center position. Both Zeller and Roy Hibbert have contracts expiring at the end of the season. If the Hornets don’t like either option, they aren’t tied down to them.
As I said, I like Zeller, and I think the team likes him too. Looking past his abilities as a basketball player, he seems like a great person and a positive influence in a locker room that is strong. What it’s going to come down to is how he performs this season. He should end up being the starting center. No slide against Hibbert, but Zeller has greater upside than Hibbert at this stage, and can offer more as a two-way player. Hibbert should fit well here, but his All-Star days are behind him. Right now, Clifford says the two will split minutes, with the more in form player of the night getting the minutes at the end of the game. Clifford has done this plenty before, but he mostly does it with players who haven’t solidified their starting role (though it must be stated that Clifford has benched Walker, Jefferson, and Nicolas Batum on rare occasions).
There’s still a bit of time before the October 31 deadline, but right now, feelings tell me Zeller won’t get extended this week. That doesn’t mean his time in Charlotte is up, in fact restricted free agents almost always come back. It does mean, however, the Hornets aren’t ready to commit, and given the current situation, that’s understandable.