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2016-17 Player Preview: Cody Zeller

The Hornets center is dealing with a nagging injury and will have to carve out a niche upon his return to the team. What’s up with Zeller this season?

NBA: Charlotte Hornets at Cleveland Cavaliers David Richard-USA TODAY Sports

When it was clear that Al Jefferson wouldn’t re-sign with the Charlotte Hornets this year, it seemed like Cody Zeller would be promoted to starting center.

Zeller is nowhere near as skilled as Jefferson, but he’s easily twice as athletic — especially at this point in each player’s career — and as a result gives head coach Steve Clifford much greater versatility on defense.

What was odd was that Clifford hadn’t shown much trust in Zeller, so the idea of Zeller being the unanimous starter didn’t make much sense. After all, in Zeller’s 217 career games, he’s only played 30 or more minutes 22 times. And don’t forget, Jefferson’s missed 61 games since coming to Charlotte the same year Zeller was drafted.

Why, then, would the Hornets commit to Zeller? Well, they didn’t. On July 7, the Hornets signed Roy Hibbert. We didn’t know how the minutes at center would be divided until Media Day, when Clifford suggested that Zeller and Hibbert would probably split them fairly evenly.

This makes some sense, as Hibbert allows the Hornets to play a slower, more methodical game reminiscent of last season’s Jefferson-centric offense while Zeller allows them to play a sloppier, more uptempo game that exploits the athleticism of the Hornets’ young core.

It’s no surprise, then, that one of the Hornets’ more effective two-man lineups of the last few years — at least defensively — is Zeller and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist. Each player thrives in a looser, more chaotic environment where they can run the floor and gobble up offensive rebounds.

The issue with playing those two together is that neither is a particularly good shooter. Kidd-Gilchrist’s limitations as a shooter are well documented. Zeller, on the other hand, was drafted on the assumption that he’d develop into something of a stretch four. That hasn’t been the case thus far, and not for a lack of trying. Zeller simply doesn’t have the touch to consistently bang home 18-foot jumpers.

And unfortunately for him, that’s what it’s going to take for him to take the next step in his development. We know he rebounds well. We know he’s a plus defender. We know he’s excellent at filling lanes and running the floor. If he’s going to cement his position as a starter in the NBA, his offensive game desperately needs to develop.

We hoped playing under Big Al would help Zeller develop a post game, and while he’s definitely shown some improvement on the block — particularly in terms of footwork — he’s still your last option for a bucket late in the clock. Some of it is touch, some of it is an inability to react to the defense, and some of it is a lack of confidence in his moves. Regardless, if Zeller’s to show Clifford he deserves to play over Hibbert it’s going to have to come on the offensive side of the ball. He’s not going to outplay Hibbert on defense, as nice as that would be.

Zeller’s role isn’t clear, and in actuality it’s never been clear. He was drafted as the team’s power forward of the future and ended up being their kinda-good-but-not-great center. With Frank Kaminsky showing an emerging offensive game in the preseason and being an adequate defender in most cases, Zeller’s place on the Hornets isn’t what it once was. He needs to prove himself more than ever.

And unfortunately, a nagging bone bruise has kept him out of many practices and games. Zeller originally hurt his right knee during the playoffs last season and aggravated the injury in Team USA scrimmages over the summer. Steve Clifford remarked that he’s “not even doing the non-contact stuff at this stage” last week.

So Zeller has a tough road ahead of him this season. Not only does he have to battle back from a trivial but limiting injury, he’s going to have to carve out a role on a team that’s growing without him and prove that he deserves playing time over two other good big men.

It’s a tough task, but Zeller’s shown time and time again that he’s willing to work for it. If anyone can pull it off, it’s him.