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Cody Zeller is thriving in the Hornets’ new offense

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The sample size may be small, but the Hornets center is performing like a completely different player this season.

NBA: Chicago Bulls at Charlotte Hornets Sam Sharpe-USA TODAY Sports

When All-Star Kemba Walker left for greener pastures in Boston this summer, many Hornets fans including myself wondered about the future of the team’s veteran players. Having failed to reach beyond the first round of the playoffs since 2001, it was obvious that there had to be a chance among the team’s experienced players.

Through the result of rumors and speculation, the playing time for Marvin Williams, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Nicolas Batum have all been up in the air. This season, head coach James Borrego has firmly taken a stand on this issue. All three of these players are playing significantly fewer minutes. Luckily, each veteran has accepted their reduced role.

But, there’s been one crafty veteran that has managed to hold his spot in the rotation despite his age not matching up with the team’s younger collection of players. Former fourth overall pick in the 2013 NBA Draft, Cody Zeller has done a solid job contributing to the Hornets offense in his career. The 27-year-old has been one of the best screen-rollers in the association, a major reason as to why Kemba was so effective wearing the purple and teal.

Being labeled as “solid” shouldn’t be the ceiling for a player picked so high in the draft. After all, the Hornets picked Zeller over other centers like Steven Adams and Kelly Olynyk that year. Zeller’s first five seasons saw little to no improvement shooting the basketball. He was always a liability with time winding down on the shot clock, which sometimes led to the paint becoming cramped in late-game situations.

With Kemba out of the picture, Borrego has shifted his game plan and identity on the offensive end. From the naked eye, the Hornets have been ultra-quick off the initial catch in the halfcourt. Every player is in constant motion, which has led to the bombardment of three-point makes this young season. Having a freestyle offensive approach has done great wonders to the team’s flow moving the ball.

Orchestrating it all, surprisingly, has been Zeller. He improved his ball-handling over the offseason, which has done wonders for his post presence. He’s more controlled in that area, resulting in more hand-off plays for wings and guards. This confidence with the ball has also lead to more confident rolls towards the rim. Take a look at some of the biggest dunks through the team’s first slew of games. Zeller isn’t afraid of penetrating near the basket.

Shooting has also been a major surprise through the Hornets’ first six games. Although his mid-range shot came in very short spurts last season, Zeller now looks very confident hoisting from that area. This has done him wonders at the elbows, as he can finally capitalize on the given separation by his defender when Zeller’s receiver drives inside.

Here’s a perfect example of this.

Credit: HornetsFilm

Before this year, Zeller knocked down a total of ten three-pointers. His shooting stroke has become more reliable. He’s already halfway through that mark in less than a month of this new campaign. His shot is clean with no obvious hitch or mechanical issues from start to finish.

Zeller has also revolutionized himself as a rebounder. Despite being tasked as the team’s primary board getter, the big man has averaged just six rebounds per game up until this year, well below average.

But so far in 2019, things have looked very promising in that category. He’s amassed a double-double in his first four games played, including a career-best fifteen boards in the team’s win over the Sacramento Kings. Looking more aggressive off each shot attempt, Zeller has kicked in a new motor that we haven’t seen before. If he continues to keep up this work on the glass, it will do wonders for the Hornets on both sides of the ball.

Of course, just as Zeller has hit on many areas this season, there always are some weaknesses and soft spots. This time, it’s been his one-on-one defense and assignment coverage.

Zeller’s reputation as a defender has always been slightly-above-average. He’s never been a deterring force in the painted area aside from the occasional highlight block. Being able to keep up with his opponent has never been an issue because of his unique short-spurts of athleticism.

He hasn’t been as good this season. He’s often looked lackluster off pick-and-rolls, pictured here.

Credit: Arthur Jenkins

Becoming increasingly reliant on hedging off screens has exposed a large part in his defensive IQ. Chicago Bulls center Lauri Markkanen took full advantage of that in the Hornets’ season opener, scoring a whopping 35 points in the effort. This has to be the biggest area of development moving forward.

The Hornets truly have no reliable fives when Zeller is out of the game. Both Willy Hernangomez and Bismack Biyombo’s glaring weaknesses are still a major part of their output on the court. Their development hasn’t changed. This has caused Zeller to play the vast majority of the team’s minutes at center.

Moving towards the big picture, and you can see just how different Cody Zeller has been playing this season. He has done enough work in the offseason to be much more adept at the modern approach to the game.

Yes, this new defensive question mark is still a problem to keep an eye on. But in the broad scheme of things, the team should be happy with Zeller’s performance so far.

He has developed from being a borderline average starter to one that can make a real impact on the court.

This piece may come off as extreme optimism to some, but you must grab onto every shining star during a rebuilding situation.