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2017-18 Hornets Season Review: Cody Zeller

The Hornets were worse off without Zeller for the second straight season, as the big man missed most of the 2017-18 season with knee troubles.

NBA: Charlotte Hornets at Denver Nuggets Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

2017-18 statistics: 7.1 points, 5.4 rebounds per game. 54.5 FG%

Outside of Charlotte Hornets fans, there isn’t a lot of recognition for Cody Zeller’s talents. Sure, he receives praise from the national media writers whose jobs are to be in the know about players like Zeller, but the reception is less warm for the average NBA fan. His stats aren’t eye-popping, but it only takes a handful of games to notice how good a player Zeller is. We’ve grown to recognize his talents over five NBA seasons, and there’s little doubt that the Hornets are a better team when he plays. He isn’t better than Dwight Howard from an individual standpoint, but he’s certainly a better fit, and his absence was felt for the second straight season.

Zeller played in just 33 games in 2017-18. He missed four games in November, returned briefly, but then missed 26 straight from mid-December until the end of January. He played in nearly every game in February but was shut down again in March and wasn’t able to return.

When he played, Zeller was solid, but his overall numbers dipped from a season ago. Part of this was a reduced role, as he averaged roughly eight fewer minutes per game. But less minutes wasn’t just due to coming off the bench — Zeller often played on a minutes restriction when he was available. As a result, his scoring and rebounding numbers dipped. He still shot well over 50 percent from the field, but his field goal percentage dropped from 57 to 54 despite taking three fewer shots a game. All things considered, it’s doubtful Zeller was ever 100 percent this season.

All this raises questions over Zeller’s long-term health. It’s a topic few of us want to admit, but missing 90 or so games the past two seasons because of re-occuring knee troubles makes it impossible to ignore. A recent MRI revealed no new concerns, but doubt will remain until he lasts a full season.

The knee issues stunted his development as well. Zeller’s improvement has always felt like moving up one step at a time rather than skipping a few, but the development has always been there. Once it was discovered he was better playing as an athletic end-to-end center, Zeller improved his strength and focused on attacking the rim. Having established that, the next step appeared to be shooting more from beyond the arc. We saw the tiniest glimpse of that, as Zeller made 2-of-3 from the 3-point line this season. It’s a tease reminiscent of Michael Kidd-Gilchrist a few seasons ago before he re-tore his labrum, suggesting that with more games played, Zeller would’ve shot more from deep and attempted to develop that part of his game. He can continue doing so this summer, assuming his knee allows him on the court.

But as we head into the summer, Mitch Kupchak and the new front office will have to at least assess Zeller’s condition. If they are confident he will be healthy next season, then it makes sense for him to remain an important part of the rotation. That said, the late season emergence of Willy Hernangomez opens the possibility for Zeller to be moved. It’s an idea I don’t want to seriously consider, but with three years and roughly $42 million remaining on his current deal, moving him this summer could free up desperately needed cap space. Once Howard is off the books following next season, the Hornets suddenly have room to not only pay Kemba Walker (assuming he’s still around) but others as well (say Hernangomez if he continues to develop). It’s a hypothetical that may not even make sense depending on what Kupchak decides to do with the roster, but at this point it is one of the many possibilities moving forward. In an ideal situation, Howard is moved instead of Zeller, but the trade market for Howard is likely to be slim.

More than anything, however, I want Zeller back and healthy again. The big guy who famously said he’d play basketball for free after signing his contract extension is one of the most likable players on the roster, and his talents are missed when he’s not playing. Hopefully his knee troubles are behind him so we can see more of the Big Handsome next season.