By Sekou Smith, NBA.com
Posted Oct 23, 2013 9:51 PM
Al Jefferson is a self-professed country boy from Mississippi who has never displayed a flair for the dramatic in his nine years in the NBA, on or off the court.
Cody Zeller is the youngest of three brothers who have played NBA basketball, a star since his Indiana high school and college glory days who has known nothing but the spotlight ever since he can remember.
They come from opposite ends of the hoops spectrum, the veteran Jefferson and the rookie Zeller. And yet, here they are, the key figures in a franchise rehabilitation project in Charlotte. The Bobcats have been here before, with players expected to help revitalize the operation, only to find out that they needed more. But building around a potentially dynamic big man duo like this, along with the the wisdom and vision of a new coach like Steve Clifford, has raised eyebrows around the league.
"They're going to be much improved," said Atlanta Hawks general manager Danny Ferry, a Southeast Division rival who offered this assessment several times when asked about the changing landscape in the Eastern Conference since last season. "I have a ton of respect for their coach. And I think they have added guys, especially their big guys, who will help them take that next step."
That next step, from lottery regular to playoff contender, will have to come with the Bobcats following the two-man game of Jefferson and Zeller that have to be honed on the fly. Training camp and the preseason is their dress rehearsal. Zeller fits at power forward, rounding out a starting five of Kemba Walker, Gerald Henderson, and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist over veteran Josh McRoberts, who was slowed by a toe injury in camp.
Zeller impressed early on with his blue-collar attitude and penchant for sacrificing the personal glory he could chase for the greater good, the same traits he displayed during a breakout summer showing at the Las Vegas Summer League.
"He's good. He isn't worried about the pressure of being the No. 4 pick. He just knows basketball," Walker told reporters after a training camp practice. "He's the guy we need on this team because it doesn't matter (whether he puts up gaudy numbers). He doesn't need to make this huge impact right away because what he does (naturally) already has impact without always being on the stat sheet. He makes guys better, and that's tough from the (power forward) position. He does so many small things that help me and Gerald (Henderson) and Al (Jefferson). That's the guy he is -- team-first. Great to have him at that position."
Zeller was a magazine cover boy after a stellar freshman season at Indiana, where he was the center of a revitalization project in Bloomington that was far more intense than anything he'll deal with in Charlotte. There's a certain amount of pressure that comes with being the Indiana Mr. Basketball and walking into the most demanding job in the state -- no offense to the Governor or the quarterback of the Indianapolis Colts.
His perceived struggles against more athletic big men during his sophomore season tempered some of the enthusiasm about his NBA prospects. But all of that changed in the days leading up to the Draft, when he vaulted past Kentucky's Nerlens Noel and Maryland's Alex Len on draft boards. The Bobcats scooped up the 7-footer with designs on him becoming a fixture in their frontcourt rotations for years to come.
"He has a lot of talent and he's a hard worker," Clifford said of Zeller, 21. "Cody's the kind of guy that the more you are around him the and the more you watch him play, the more excited you are about his possibilities."
Pair him with a 6-foot-10, 290-pound behemoth like Jefferson, whom the Bobcats paid handsomely (three years, $41 million) to land, and the possibilities are endless for Charlotte. They were in need of technician in the post who could demand constant double teams and free up space on the perimeter.
"He's such a dominant low-post player that people have to double him regardless," Walker said. "So as long our spacing is correct, guys will be open. All he has to do is make the right play. his passes have been great as far as finding us. Sometimes he sees the double-team before it comes. He makes really fast moves or gets it out and re-posts."
Jefferson is also eager to work alongside Zeller. And they have already developed an easy rapport, with Jefferson referring to the baby-faced Zeller as his "favorite 16-year-old in the league."
"That's going to be an easy fit," Clifford said of the developing chemistry between his big men. "They are both high-character, team-first guys that are personable. They will add to our team chemistry and things like that."
Jefferson is only seven years older than Zeller, but they are a generation apart in terms of their basketball experiences. During a post-practice interview where Zeller asked the questions, the rookie decided to have a little fun.
"People say that college is the best years of your life, what do you say about that?" a smiling Zeller asked.
"Well, I wouldn't know," said Jefferson, who has been around long enough to remember when prep stars could skip college for the pros. "I have heard that. But I skipped college. And hey, the NBA ain't bad now either."
It's even better when you have a group pulling in the same direction with a fresh coaching staff and a clear-cut list of goals that everyone is working towards on a daily basis.
"We've got a chance to do something real special," Jefferson said. "I like the mindset everybody has and I love the coaching staff. We got an all-star coaching staff. I think we're all on the same page and we're going to have some fun this year."
1. Steve Clifford was a hot commodity on the coaching market during the summer. Several executives around the league have mentioned that he will have a positive and immediate impact on the Bobcats' young talent.
2. The Bobcats paid Al Jefferson handsomely to lead on and off the court, something he didn't do (at least vocally) in Utah. That has to change in Charlotte.
3. Bismack Biyombo needs a defined role if his raw talent is ever going to translate into the shot-swatting big man being a consistent force.
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LAST YEAR: 21-61, 4th in Southeast
FINISH: Missed playoffs
2012-13 TEAM LEADERS
|Complete 2012-13 Stats|
KEMBA WALKER, POINT GUARD
17.7 PPG | 3.5 RPG | 5.7 APG
Walker has made quality strides in his first two seasons. His job should be a lot easier with Al Jefferson in the paint.
GERALD HENDERSON, SHOOTING GUARD
15.5 PPG | 3.7 RPG | 2.6 APG
Henderson has to become more consistent from long distance if he's going to make the most of his physical and athletic advantage.
MICHAEL KIDD-GILCHRIST, SMALL FORWARD
9.0 PPG | 5.8 RPG | 1.5 APG
MKG struggled under Mike Dunlap but shouldn't with Steve Clifford, who will push MKG to be a slasher and defensive stopper.
CODY ZELLER, POWER FORWARD
N/A PPG | N/A RPG | N/A APG
Zeller played well during Summer League and has shown polish and athleticism that goes against the pre-Draft knock on him.
AL JEFFERSON, CENTER
17.8 PPG | 9.2 RPG | 2.1 APG
The Bobcats needed Jefferson just as much as he needed them in free agency. He gives the Bobcats a low-post anchor they have not had.
|Jeffery Taylor||6-7||225||G||Brings a nice blend of size and skill.|
|Bismack Biyombo||6-9||245||F/C||Still extremely raw but has a good motor and instincts.|
|Ramon Sessions||6-3||190||G||Gives Charlotte a great security blanket.|
ADDED: C Al Jefferson, F Cody Zeller, F Anthony Tolliver
LOST: F Tyrus Thomas, C/F Byron Mullens, G Reggie Williams
McRoberts, an excellent passer and solid shooter, serves as a nice change-of-pace big to spell Zeller. McRoberts was poised to battle Zeller for the starting spot, but a lingering toe injury slowed him up. With Brendan Haywood out 12 weeks with a toe injury, McRoberts' play is key.