Aside from the debate between Terry Rozier and Devonte’ Graham, the biggest question mark going into next season revolves around the center position. The Hornets ranked bottom five in the NBA in both rebounds and blocks last season, and also had the worst field goal percentage in the league within 10 feet of the hoop (53.0%). In addition to bringing back Cody Zeller and Bismack Biyombo, the Hornets picked up two centers in the draft—Vernon Carey Jr. and Nick Richards. The new question is, which center should be getting the most playing time?
Pros: Zeller has been in Charlotte for his entire career, making him the longest tenured center (and player) on the roster. His biggest strength since entering the league has been his offense. Zeller is easily the most polished center on the roster when it comes to scoring in the paint, and is also the only true seven-footer on the team. Zeller has even worked to develop a three-pointer. Last season he took 1.3 threes a night, shooting 24.0%. While this may not seem great, it means that Zeller is taking the necessary steps to adapt to an ever-evolving game.
Cons: Despite being the tallest center on the roster and averaging the most rebounds, Zeller still isn’t a very good rebounder overall. When looking at centers who averaged at least seven boards a night, Zeller ranked dead last in rebound chance percentage. This means that of the 14.2 chances a night he had to rebound the ball, he only grabbed 7.1, which adds up to the worst percentage of that group. As well as being a below average rebounder, Zeller’s defense is also very questionable. When going up against Zeller within six feet of the basket last season, opponents shot 61.9%. This ranked bottom 12 in the league amongst centers who played in at least 30 games.
Pros: Biyombo’s contract has been one of the worst in the NBA for years, but this past offseason he inked a new, more team-friendly deal. Looking past his contract, however, Biyombo has actually been really solid for the Hornets. Despite his size, he’s been a really solid defender, ranking 17th among centers last year in defensive real plus-minus (1.96). He also led the team in blocks, ranking 28th in blocks per 36 minutes in the entire league. Biyombo is also a very efficient finisher, shooting 65.4% when within five feet of the basket.
Cons: Unlike Zeller, Biyombo weaknesses come on the offensive side of the ball. He may be more efficient, but that’s simply due to his lack of versatility on the offensive end. Biyombo can catch lobs and cut to the rim, but that’s about as much as he can do. On top of that, Biyombo is also a below-average rebounder and a lot of it has to do with his height. Standing at only 6’8”, Biyombo is definitely undersized at the position. Regardless of how solid he is on defense, his lack of height will always put him at a disadvantage when going up against most other centers in the league.
Vernon Carey Jr.
Pros: Carey Jr. is a big body. Standing at 6’10” and 270 lbs he is by far the heaviest player on the Hornets, and at that weight is tied for the 10th heaviest player in the entire league. During his time at Duke he used his physicality and size to his advantage, bullying anyone he came across in the paint. His ability to overpower opponents and simply shoot over them may not be something that translates exactly to the NBA level, but his raw strength will. Carey Jr. shot 57.7% from the field in his one year at Duke, and even showed some promise from deep. He attempted 21 threes as a Blue Devil, nailing eight of them - good for 38.1% from three.
There’s not a lot of things in the college game right now more beautiful than a Vernon Carey Jr. drop-step slam. pic.twitter.com/yxgO4RvHZy— Rick Heidrick (@rheidrick24) February 16, 2020
Cons: His size and strength may be his best quality, but they also attribute to his biggest weakness - quickness. While he’s not necessarily a bad defender, his enormous frame limits his ability to defend with the amount of quickness needed to be an elite rim-protector. While he does possess a decent amount of acceleration when driving to the rim on offense, his overall lack of speed makes it difficult for him to keep up on defense. Also, as previously mentioned, the way he dominated other centers at the collegiate level won’t translate to the NBA where opponents will be bigger, stronger, and more experienced.
Pros: Standing at 6’11”, Richards is the second tallest center on the roster behind only Zeller. Unlike Carey Jr., Richards thrives on the defensive side of the ball due to a combination of his height and his amazing athleticism. He blocked 2.1 shots a game in his final season at Kentucky, making life difficult for anyone who stepped in the paint. Richards also led the SEC in field goal percentage his last year in college, shooting 64.2% from the field. He’s great at catching alley-oops, too, something that will greatly benefit rookie point guard LaMelo Ball. Richards is also a solid rebounder, ranking third in the SEC in rebounds per game (7.8).
Cons: Similarly to Biyombo, Richards’ offensive game leaves much to be desired. While he is great at cutting to the rim, running the pick-n-roll, and catching lobs, he lacks any ability to create for himself offensively. Richards is also pretty old for an incoming rookie, as he will be 23 by the time the season starts. While this may not have any impact on his play overall, it does limit his longterm potential in the league. Richards also lacks the ability to pass, tallying only 23 assists in the 105 games he played at Kentucky.
So with the question being who should start, the answer really depends on what the Hornets are trying to do. If the goal is to win right now, Zeller should be played for his offense and Biyombo for his defense. However, if the goal is to help the young guns develop, Carey Jr. is the man for offense, while Richards is the man for defense. Zeller and Biyombo will most likely split the starting minutes as they did last year, but Carey Jr. and Richards are ready to show what they’ve got.