Charlotte Hornets: Time To Call Cody Zeller’s Number?

It was a bad day to be a Charlotte Hornets fan.

It was Thursday, June 27, 2013–exactly 52 weeks after the team had missed out on NCAA superstar Anthony Davis by just one draft spot. In the past year, fans had seen second-overall pick Michael Kidd-Gilchrist underperform in his rookie season, averaging a paltry 9.0 points per game.

The Bobcats had missed out on the playoffs again after losing 61 games.

And now, despite the fact that numerous top-tier, high-upside talents, including Nerlens Noel, Ben McLemore, Giannis Antetokounmpo, and Michael Carter Williams remained on the board, Charlotte had instead elected to pick up Cody Zeller with the fourth pick in the 2013 draft.

Classic Bobcats move, right?

After a horrendous rookie campaign for the former Indiana star, it appeared to be. But now, nearly a year and a half after 2013’s NBA Draft, the Charlotte Hornets need Zeller more than ever.

Since the Bobcats began to fall off the wagon, their frontcourt rotations have been perennially poor, putting a ton of pressure on their guards. Clearly, management recognized this last summer, and because of this, decided to pursue Al Jefferson–who, for as good as he is, only fixed half the problem.

Charlotte made a big push last year to qualify for the playoffs, but Jefferson and Walker were doing far too much offensively, which made the Bobcats predictable and often ineffective on that end of the court.

Things only got worse when Josh McRoberts, a forward who had the second-best assist-to-turnover ratio in the NBA last year, bolted to the Miami Heat in free agency. Now, down one of the team’s few offensive threats, the Hornets’ management had to turn to free agency.

Or did they?

Marvin Williams, a veteran forward who last played for the Utah Jazz, was brought in earlier in the summer to help replace McBob’s production, but he has been nothing more than, at best, an inconsistent spot-up shooter.

And for a Hornets team that is averaging the fifth-fewest points in the entire NBA, an inconsistent spot-up shooter isn’t going to cut it. This team needs a creator.

Cody Zeller

Sep 29, 2014; Charlotte, NC, USA; Charlotte Hornets forward Cody Zeller (40) during Media Day at Time Warner Cable Arena. Mandatory Credit: Sam Sharpe-USA TODAY Sports

Enter Cody Zeller.

That’s right: the same Cody Zeller that caused fans to leave the 2013 draft party. The same Cody Zeller that shot under 43 percent from the field last year. The same Cody Zeller that was an afterthought in Charlotte’s rebuild after Noah Vonleh was picked up this year.

That same Cody Zeller could be what the Hornets have been missing.

Zeller is young, athletic, and skilled prospect, so why isn’t he starting for this club over the lowly Williams?

Rule number one of having a low-post big: having shooters on the wings makes everyone’s lives a lot easier. Considering this, the decision to role with Williams in the first unit was likely based on his ability to shoot the three, at least, at a higher clip than Zeller, whose range really doesn’t extend beyond 18 feet.

Having said that, Williams is the type of player that camps out around the three-point line, while Zeller moves around the high-post area. For a team that features mostly wing- and corner-three shooters in Stephenson, Walker, Gary Neal, and PJ Hairston, the Hornets need someone to space the floor at the top of the key.

Last year’s Cody Zeller wouldn’t have been able to be that guy. This year, that is far from the case.

Zeller is shooting an astounding 52.9 percent from midrange, which is more than twice last year’s percentage (26.1) from the same area. His mechanics are perfect this season, and his jumper has fluidity, something that was missing in years past.

The shooting has been a big plus for the Hornets, as it opens up a new facet of the pick and roll game. Now, Zeller can use his athleticism to play as a roller and catch lobs (although the Hornets really haven’t been employing alley-oops this year), or he can pop out, and either spot-up, dump it down low to Jefferson, or kick it to the wing to reset.

Zeller is radiating confidence this season, and that 18-footer right behind the free throw line is his sweet spot. If he can keep knocking down that midrange shot with the same efficiency, he is spacing the floor a hell of a lot more than Marvin Williams is.

But his jumpshooting is not the only thing that warrants his placement as a starter. Zeller can pass the ball, and he can pass the ball well. The issue is, as a rookie (and, to an extent, as a sophomore), Zeller had (has) a tendency to force dribble hand-offs or passes within a motion set that the defense was fully expecting.

This is just one of the many growing pains that some college players face when they reach the proffesional level: NBA offenses often require improvisation, and with the all of the high-IQ players that are found in the Association, offensive sets are picked up quickly, and rigidity will often result in a turnover.

This was likely the reason that Zeller had 82 turnovers last year while only playing 17.3 minutes a night. To be successful, he’s got to adjust.

Thus far, he has already begun to do so. Although the stats may not indicate it (Zeller has 17 turnovers to just 11 assists), the seven-footer has gotten significantly better at reading defenses this year, and has been able to attack holes in the D when defenders are cheating, especially in dribble hand-off situations.

Craftiness is key, and Zeller’s diverse offensive skill set coupled with a new understanding of offense-defense dynamics makes him a viable option at the four spot for this Hornets club.

The Hornets would be losing a key defensive wing in Williams should he be relegated to a bench role, but then again, Zeller is not a poor defender by any means. The 22-year-old is the Hornets’ master of timely blocks, and despite having a 6-foot-11 wingspan, which is small for his size, Zeller’s leaping ability allows him to swat shots … hard.

And if that wasn’t enough…

And while he isn’t a great one-one-one defender, Zeller is a fantastic rebounder, a key part of any good defense. Marvin Williams, although 6-foot-10, isn’t much of a rebounder, especially as he gets up there in age.

He is a bit of a softie, really. Zeller is playing just 23.1 minutes per game this year, but is averaging 5.4 rebounds, compared to Williams’ 3.3 in just under 25 minutes per game.

Sometimes, Zeller can have clumsy hands, and he does have a bad tendency to tip the ball instead of ripping it down, but he has the athleticism and the instincts to be one of the best rebounders in the league.

While Zeller outperforms Williams in nearly every major statistical category, the reality is that Steve Clifford may simply have more faith in the nine-year veteran Williams than in his second-year backup forward.

With that said, the Hornets are sitting at 4-8 and aren’t even close to being in the playoff race, so clearly, whatever is being employed now isn’t working.

The Hornets need to make a change.

Starting Cody Zeller could be the answer.