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Cody Zeller could thrive as the Hornets backup center

Cody Zeller’s absence cratered the Hornets playoff hopes last season. Now he’s in better shape than ever, but will he be able to thrive in a new role?

Player A: missed 20 games last season. Team went 16-4 in his absence

Player B: missed 20 games last season. Team went 3-17 in his absence

The first guy is Kevin Durant, who is either the first or second best player in the universe depending who you ask. You know how the story ended for him and his team last year. The second guy is Cody Zeller, who is anywhere from the second to sixth best player on the Charlotte Hornets depending who you ask. Im assuming if you’re reading this you’re painfully aware of how the story ended for his team last year.

Is Cody Zeller is a more valuable basketball player than Kevin Durant? Of course not — not conclusively at least (more data must be gathered). But if the question is, “is Cody Zeller more valuable to the Hornets than Kevin Durant is to the Warriors?” The answer is, “maybe?”

That of course says a lot more about the two team’s rosters than it does the players in question. When KD went down for 20 games, Golden State reverted back to the team that broke the single season record for wins in an NBA season. When Cody went down for 20 games, the Hornets got sad and missed their friend.

If Zeller isn’t the most underrated player in the league today, he’s certainly in the conversation. Part of that is by nature; it isn’t that people don’t think Cody Zeller is good, its that the things he’s good at are things we never think about. I look at Cody like an offensive lineman: you don’t really notice what he’s doing well because the game just flows more smoothly in an almost imperceptible way; but take him out of the equation and the whole thing begins to rip at the seams.

He’s come a long way since fans at the then Time Warner Cable Arena booed his selection with the No. 4 overall pick in 2013. Zeller has incrementally improved his game over each of his four seasons in the league, quietly mastering the eternally underappreciated craft of NBA workhorse.

Basketball is a fairly obvious game; take someone who’s never seen a single bucket before and plop them in front of a TNT Thursday night game and they’ll more than likely be able to pick out the best player on the floor within a minute or two. Lebron James is bigger and stronger than everyone, Russell Westbrook is faster and more insane than everyone, and Stephen Curry is better at making the ball go through the hoop than everyone. But trying to explain how Cody Zeller is so valuable just by watching a game is much harder. He’s just really, really good at, well, stuff.

The statistical community has begun to shine the spotlight on Zeller to show his impact in some sort of quantifiable context, at least sort of. Last season he ranked third in the NBA in something called “screen assists per game,” which is a metric that logs screens that directly lead to a made field goal, and honestly sounds like something I just pulled out of my ass specifically for the purpose of trying to persuade you that Cody Zeller is better than you think.

The irony is that the thing that finally got Zeller recognized by casual fans was simply going away for a while. The Hornet’s decline with him out of the lineup last season was so dramatically black and white. A healthy Zeller returning for the 2017-18 season was sure to be a talking point on every opponents game broadcast. It still will be, but for different, Dwight Howard shaped reasons.

On paper, this is a great problem to have. If last season’s achilles heel was not-enough-Cody, it stands to reason that having such an important player be able to serve as your backup would be an embarrassment of riches. A lot is riding on how Howard gels with the starting unit. Cody may not have a fragile ego, but he’s a proven commodity in the starting lineup, while Howard has about as short of a leash for a starter joining a new team as we’ve ever seen. Clifford is a resolute guy, but the national media is already salivating at the idea of another Howard reclamation-trainwreck. This “good problem” could quickly flip into a giant headache.

That’s the worst case scenario though, because the bottom line is Cody Zeller is going to BEAST with the second unit. Oddly enough of the two centers Zeller is the one who most resembles Dwight Howard now. When Zeller checked into the first preseason game against the Celtics last week I think I audibly gasped. He looked like he had the Captain America Superhuman Procedure done over the summer.

The second unit is going to be a lot of fun this season. Having Zeller out on the floor setting some of the best screens in the league (AHEM* Third best in the NBA Screen Assists, lotta people saying its one of best stats, very cool, etc) for Malik Monk and Dwayne Bacon should ease their transition into the pace of the pro game.

I expect a big year out of Cody, and having done almost no research into this claim whatsoever feel pretty confident in saying the Hornets have the best backup center in the NBA. And that is a perfectly “Charlotte Hornets” thing for the Charlotte Hornets to have.