Just a few days into the 2016-17 season, Cody Zeller’s future with the Charlotte Hornets was up in the air. The deadline to extend him was October 31 or otherwise, he’d become a restricted free agent in the summer.
Luckily, the Hornets didn’t hesitate in offering the big man a four year, $56 million deal locking him up through the 2020-21 season. With the season Zeller had, it’s very possible he would’ve yielded an offer up to $17 million annually, a price the Hornets may not have been able to afford.
Despite coming off a 2015-16 season that saw improvements, there were still many that doubted Zeller could be a productive NBA center this season. Sure, he’s not a rim protector or a low post threat, but he’s an athletic seven footer that can get up and down the court. He’s a hybrid that speeds up an offense because he can run with the wings of the NBA.
Early on, the signing proved to be worth every penny. The Hornets started 8-3 before Zeller missed his first game of the season. They went on to lose the next three without him, sparking a trend for the remainder of the season. All in all, the Hornets went 3-17 without Zeller, meaning they had a 33-29 record with him the lineup.
His absence took away transition opportunities, a high energy motor and an improved presence on both sides of the ball. He brings an unmatched toughness and hustle to each opportunity.
In the 62 games he played this season, Zeller totaled career-highs in points per game (10.3), rebounds (6.5), steals (1.0) and most impressively, shooting percentage (57.1). His shooting percentage led the team and he even shot better from longer distances. Here’s his full shot chart from 2016-17:
Don’t be fooled by all the red. This season, Zeller shot 37.5 percent when 10 to 19 feet from the basket on 48 shot attempts. Compare that to the measly 23 percent he shot from the same distance on 65 shot attempts in 2015-16, and its clear he improved. He will need to continuing improving from outside the paint, but he’s more confident in the pick-and-pop if he’s not rolling to the basket.
Speaking of the pick-and-roll, Zeller and Kemba Walker became one of the most underrated duos in the league this year. With both of them using their quickness, opponents struggled to react properly to each screen and roll. If teams respected Zeller too much, Walker blew by them. If teams anticipated a move from Walker, which they did more often than not, defenders didn’t react or recover in time before Zeller dove towards the basket.
This season, Zeller had the second highest frequency of pick and roll plays at 33.1 percent and averaged 3.1 per game. Among all players who averaged over three pick and roll possessions, Zeller had the highest frequency of getting to the free throw line in the entire league at 17.9 percent. This is where his shooting percentages also paid dividends, as he shot 52.1 percent on all pick and roll plays, which was good for third in the league ahead of players such as Anthony Davis, Al Horford and Marc Gasol.
As seen in the highlight above, Zeller excels in getting the and-one opportunities. Again, for players averaging more than three pick and roll plays a game this season, Zeller only trailed Davis in getting the hoop plus the harm.
In this next example, he uses his body to fend off Bradley Beal, before rolling left after the pass. There, he drifts more towards the baseline than the basket and uses his quickness and athleticism to get by Marcin Gortat near the left block.
If Gortat leans more towards Zeller, it’s an easy basket for Walker. There’s a reason Zeller was third in the NBA in screen assists, and vice versa, there’s a reason to why Walker got freed up so often in the paint.
If Zeller’s not dunking on half the NBA, he’s scoring via the floater he’s developed over the past few seasons. When a big man receives the ball on a pick and roll, there’ll be the occasional help-side defender fronting him outside the constricted area. This is where Zeller has used his newfound shot.
But also, he's developed a little floater. One like Steven Adams of OKC pic.twitter.com/fMQC1Q64AH— Nik Valdiserri (@NickyV05) May 9, 2017
On the other side of the ball, Zeller showed flashes of defending the pick and roll this season. He still needs to do a better job of forcing opponents to tougher shots, but here’s an example of him cutting off the lane for Beal using his lateral quickness:
This is how to cover pick and roll. MKG locks and trails, Zeller steps up on Beal. His helpside is there v Gortat. MKG recovers to the ball pic.twitter.com/Lu7DKhVbuB— J. Michael (@JMichaelCSN) March 20, 2017
Improving on the defensive side, Zeller used his motor to his advantage. He denied passes into the post, blocked shots as a help-defender and had the best defensive rating of any eligible Hornets player.
Here, he denies the entry pass and eventually gets a dunk on the other side:
See the difference in how Zeller and Orlando Magic’s Nikola Vucevic get down the court? Zeller can outrun most centers in the league, making him dangerous in open space. He’s not only become a better finisher because of it, but he’s also learned when and where to pass the ball if he receives it early in the break. Hence, he’s break-starter, much like Michael Kidd-Gilchrist has become.
In these next two plays, notice how Zeller uses his advantages to score twice when matched-up with arguably the best center in the league, DeMarcus Cousins.
Pretty great stuff.
Zeller’s prototype is longed for in today’s NBA. He’s long, athletic, a half-decent outside shooter and a formidable option on both ends. He may not individually take over games and win them, but he has a strong enough presence to be the deciding factor in whether a team wins or loses. He’s a hybrid that makes up for his deficiencies in low-post scoring and shot-swatting abilities by constantly working the pick and roll game, attacking the offensive glass and using his lateral abilities to be at the right place at the right time.
Going forward, the biggest questions will revolve around his health and whether or not he can keep rounding out his game. It shouldn’t be too much to ask for him to add a few more points and rebounds to his averages next season. His role continues to grow in coach Steve Clifford’s offense. He’s also proven how important he is to the team’s success, and he can clearly play with a lot of different big men, whether it’s Marvin Williams or Frank Kaminsky.
And don’t ever forget that this happened.