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2020-21 Hornets season preview: Cody Zeller

Cody Zeller is ice cream.

NBA: Orlando Magic at Charlotte Hornets Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports

For the eighth consecutive year the Charlotte Hornets will rely heavily upon Cody Zeller to man the paint. This wasn’t a foregone conclusion before the draft as several mock drafts had Charlotte landing a more dynamic big man, but the Hornets instead selected guard LaMelo Ball.

At this point we as Hornets fans appreciate Cody Zeller like we appreciate vanilla ice cream. Good ol’ vanilla ice cream is fine. It’s not Peanut Butter & Chocolate, but it’s much better than, say, plain frozen yogurt or some overly-tart sherbert.

But here’s the thing about vanilla ice cream - while boring by itself, it often creates the best base layer of a delicious banana split. Vanilla holds down the fort while hot fudge, caramel, bananas, whipped cream, nuts, and cherries make the dish truly special. Zeller’s the generic ice cream. LaMelo Ball, Devonte’ Graham, Terry Rozier, Gordon Hayward, PJ Washington, and Miles Bridges are the delicious toppings.

Cody Zeller is really good at melting into the background while creating the base layer for his teammates to unleash their flavor. He sets good screens. He boxes out. He limits mistakes. He lets the offense come to him.

Interestingly, Cody is coming off his best professional season, statistically speaking. His 11.1 points and 7.1 rebounds last year were both career highs, as were his per-36 minute averages of 17.2 points and 11.0 rebounds. So at age 28 Cody Zeller is getting...slightly better?

His role in 2020-21 will likely be exactly what it has been in the past, playing around 24 minutes per game banging with the opposing team’s big man. He’ll once again get his fair share of floor burns and bloody noses, but it will be interesting to see how the additions of LaMelo Ball and Gordon Hayward will change the Hornets overall strategy and Cody’s role on the team.

Last year James Borrego’s squad played at the NBA’s slowest pace at 96.2. That needs to change with the addition of LaMelo Ball. You don’t buy a Ferrari then drive it through residential neighborhoods. I actually think an increased pace could help Zeller contribute slightly more offensively than he has in the past. Cody has always played with a high motor - the dude is the living embodiment of “effort” - and he’s willing to outrun opposing bigs in transition. Throw in the fact that both Ball and Hayward are excellent passers and Zeller could end up with more dunks this year than he’s ever seen before.

Off the court, Cody will be an excellent mentor for the team’s younger players. Charlotte just invested the No. 32 pick in center Vernon Cary Jr. then traded for center Nick Richards who was drafted No. 42 by the New Orleans Pelicans. While Zeller will never be an All-Star, he’s learned a lot over the course of 430 career games that can be passed along to the Hornets next generation of bigs.

There’s also the possibility Cody gets traded this year. He’s on the final year of his contract with a $15.4 million salary and could bolster the front court of a contender. The Charlotte Observer recently quoted Zeller saying the front office told him, “We’re happy with you, we want to keep you around. But at the same time, if a team calls with a good offer, you’re going to get traded.” If the Hornets are in playoff contention and Zeller is contributing I’d suspect he finishes the year in Charlotte, but if things go south it would only be responsible for Mitch Kupchak to start making some calls.

This year Cody Zeller will once again contribute his two helpful scoops of vanilla ice cream to the increasingly intriguing banana split that is the Charlotte Hornets.