Despite his struggles early in his rookie season, Cody Zeller became a quality bench option for the Bobcats in the latter half of the year. After the initial criticism following his selection in the draft, Zeller didn't appear to shed his status as a controversial pick for a while, but he turned around his season at the midway point and became a quality bench option as the team entered their playoff run. Doubts linger, though, and many are still wondering what Zeller's progression (or regression) will be like this season, as the Hornets may need him to play a bigger role in his sophomore campaign.
Before the All-Star break, Zeller had a hard time adjusting to the professional game, especially on the offensive end, shooting only .380 from the floor, a bad enough mark for any player, let alone a seven-footer who wasn't attempting any threes. This completely changed in the 29 games that came after the break, as Zeller shot .507 from the floor, with a .581 true shooting percentage (compared to .445 before). Peripherally, this rose his offensive rating from 90 to 113, and his plus/minus from -5.0 to +1.6.
Part of the reason for this turnaround was smarter shot selection. Compare Zeller's shot chart from November
to his shot chart from March (and, it must be noted, Zeller played 16 games in both months):
Yes, he was still a bit enamored with the long two; but it had thankfully become a much smaller part of his game, in favor of getting to the rim more and using post moves, undoubtedly helped a bit in that regard by the current post master of basketball, Al Jefferson. One of the biggest things any player must learn in his rookie season is how to transition from being the star of his college team to being a role player on his professional squad. Zeller took to that in the late winter, becoming a smarter and more efficient offensive player with the ball in his hands.
So where does Cody Zeller go from there? There are a few questions to ask in this regard, and I'll run you through some of them.
- Does Zeller's defense improve in the upcoming season? I'll say yes to this one. Zeller isn't a defensive specialist by any means, but his play on that end of the court also improved halfway through the season. He could match any big man with quickness, but could be forced off the ball through strength pretty easily. He's reportedly bulked up to add some strength, and another year learning team defense concepts under Steve Clifford certainly couldn't hurt. There's a decent chance he still won't have much defensive impact either way, but I think he definitely takes a step forward this year.
- How much progress will Zeller make offensively? This is tough to say, but again, I have reason to be optimistic. As I noted above, one of the biggest reasons that Zeller was able to play as well as he did in the second half of the season was because he drastically improved his shot selection and basketball IQ. Those are the types of things that tend to stay with a player for a lot longer than just a few months. Furthermore, a slightly improved jump shot could lead to an improvement of his floor-spreading ability, which will bring that aspect back into his game. If nothing else, we'll have a full season of a smarter Cody Zeller, and as we saw last season, that alone could be very helpful.
- Will the Hornets be helped or hindered by Zeller's increased role? This is another difficult question. On one hand, the Hornets will need to use their depth, especially if Al Jefferson doesn't stay healthy all season, and I do like the idea of a Zeller-Bismack Biyombo frontcourt off the bench. On the other hand, replacing the ultra-valuable versatility of Josh McRoberts with increased minutes for Zeller could be an issue, because Zeller will probably remain...not particularly versatile. He'll still be terrific in transition, but making sure all of McRoberts' productivity is being picked up by others is going to be the biggest issue in the first part of the season for the Charlotte Hornets.
Best case scenario is that Zeller's improvement goes quicker than expected, he's too good to take off the bench, and he replaces the solid production of Marvin Williams in the starting lineup halfway through the season. The worst case scenario is that Zeller slightly regresses and needs a few months to find himself again, and one of Williams or Jefferson goes down with an injury in the early months, forcing Zeller to try to do too much on the court. More realistic is a middle ground there, and I'd say Cody Zeller starts this season right where he left off and remains a quality first backcourt bench option, and once again is considerably better in March than he will be in November.