There is just one professional athlete in the city of Charlotte — Panthers long-snapper JJ Jansen — that had been in the city as long as Cody Zeller had been prior to his signing with the Portland Trail Blazers on Monday.
With the fourth overall pick in the 2013 NBA Draft, the then-Bobcats selected Zeller after two awards-laden seasons with the Indiana Hoosiers. But even before that, he was Indiana Mr. Basketball, a McDonald’s All-American and top-15 recruit being courted by the likes of North Carolina and Butler. Following in the footsteps of his older brothers, NBAers Luke and Tyler, young Cody had big shoes to fill — literally and figuratively.
The 2013 draft was one of the most unpredictable in the last decade; I mean, Anthony Bennett went No. 1 overall and the presumptive No. 1 pick, Nerlens Noel, slid to sixth. To top it off, a skinny teenager from Greece ended up being the best player in the class. Zeller had a chance to be the top pick himself, but when the night concluded, “The Big Handsome” was wearing a navy blue Bobcats hat. He gave a great interview to ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski on The Woj Pod just prior to the 2021 NBA Draft where he touched on his experience.
After a rookie season that landed him on the All-Rookie second-team, Zeller had grown into a starting-caliber big man by his fourth season in 2016-17. His body was none too kind to him for the next few years, though, limiting him to just 82 games played between the 2017-18 and 2018-19 seasons. In spite of knee problems he was still able to average 10.1 points and 6.8 boards per game in 18-19, a testament to the toughness and selflessness that had become a staple of his reputation as one of the NBA’s bona fide role-playing centers.
Having his role and his minutes yanked around over the last two seasons as the Hornets transitioned away from the ghost of Kemba Walker and into the LaMelo Ball-led gunners was a product of the environment, not a reflection of Zeller’s play. Even through that, he put up a couple of his best seasons. His 11.1 points and 7.1 rebounds per game in 2019-20 are both career-highs and he even established a bit of a floater game to couple with his short-roll playmaking.
In 2020-21, a hand injury set him back a month to start the season, but Zeller was the Hornets’ best true center even if he was sparsely rewarded for it. He scored 9.4 points per game shooting 59.8 percent from 2-point range and his on/off rating of +5.3 ranked third on the team behind Devonte’ Graham and PJ Washington.
Listen, I’m not here to say GodZeller’s game is overly flashy or exciting; watching him set bruising screens, run the floor and make smart passing reads and hustle plays over the years showed us as much. Still, it’s still impossible to deny that he could pull a rabbit out of his hat every once-in-a-while.
Cody Zeller with a monster dunk on top of Giannis — delayed roll to the rim after the pick-and-roll with Devonte and another switch from the Bucks. pic.twitter.com/0ZbPIkufby— Brian Geisinger (@bgeis_bird) January 31, 2021
Cody Zeller punched a dunk down on Aaron Gordon pic.twitter.com/SKGNCjMp2E— Def Pen Hoops (@DefPenHoops) October 20, 2018
The best thing about Cody was that he always knew it was bigger than basketball; he started the Cody Zeller Sock Drive upon arrival in Charlotte and has since been donating socks to marginalized communities yearly. He’s gone to Novant Health Hemby Children’s Hospital in Halloween costumes to visit with kids. Kicks for Kids, which gives local kids the opportunity to help design the shoes Zeller wore on-court, supported a variety of different charities and organizations in the area during his time here. Sure, it’s nice when players put the orange leather ball in the metal orange hoop. It means a lot when they also take the time out of their day to give back to the community like Cody always did.
There’s only one other player in the post-relocation era of NBA basketball in Charlotte that has a Basketball Reference page showing eight consecutive seasons spent in the Queen City. We all know who it is. Though Zeller may not be leaving as the franchise’s leading scorer, with him leaves the final piece of early-to-mid-2010s Bobcats/Hornets history.
Good luck in Portland, Cody! Thank you for spending so many years in purple and teal.