Amidst “Frustrating” Injuries, Cody Zeller Continues to Produce for Hornets

by Sam Perley

Regardless of some impressive numbers and performances, the 2018-19 NBA campaign didn’t go entirely as planned for Hornets center Cody Zeller. Between a broken right hand and lingering left knee soreness that ultimately ended his season prematurely, the 26-year-old made just 49 appearances this year, a number that came in far short of his personal expectations.

“It was really frustrating. Coming into the season, it was my goal to play 75 games and to be healthy,” said Zeller during his exit interview on April 11. “Even going into the offseason, it’s frustrating. I wish it was something that was skill-based like I have to get stronger, shoot better, be on the court. I have to stay healthy for next year. I’ll do whatever it takes and I’ll be back next year.”

Zeller, who came off the bench last year behind Dwight Howard, began his sixth NBA season back in the starting rotation. He appeared in 35 of the first 36 games, registering 9.3 PPG on 55.8% shooting, 6.2 RPG, 2.1 APG and a team-leading 112.0 offensive rating. He also went 5-of-16 from distance during this stretch, an added element of his game he had not employed in previous seasons.

While attempting to run around a screen in a game against the Orlando Magic on Dec. 31, Zeller fractured his right hand in what was essentially nothing more than a freak play. He underwent surgery a few days later in New York City and was sidelined for the team’s ensuing 16 outings.

“My hand injury was a few weeks of not being able to use my right hand, so a lot of left-handed work,” he said. “It’s frustrating for sure being out that much. They told me if I had surgery, I could be back in four weeks and if I didn’t have surgery, it’d be six weeks. So, I had the surgery for an extra five games or so. I have a plate and six screws in my hand for those five games. So, it was worth it.”

He returned on Feb. 5 and two games later, was back with the first unit. From Feb. 9 – March 9, Zeller averaged 12.9 PPG, 7.6 RPG (2.4 ORB), 2.1 APG, 0.9 SPG and 1.0 BPG over 12 appearances. This stretch included a career-high 28 points on 13-of-14 shooting against the Golden State Warriors on Feb. 25 and a pair of double-doubles.

Zeller, who missed 45 of the team’s final 59 games last season after tearing his left meniscus on Dec. 6, 2017, sat out the last 16 contests of this season because of continued swelling in his troublesome knee. It was another disappointing turn of events for the Indiana product, especially after how well he played following his hand surgery.

“I think the best that I felt all year was after my hand injury - those 10 or 15 games,” Zeller stated. “My knee felt great, my hand was back to being fine. We just have to find a way to have that for a whole season, that production.” He then added, “I’m such a team guy that not making the playoffs – that was our biggest goal of the year. I didn’t do enough and the team didn’t do enough overall, so that’s more of my focus.”

Zeller finished the year averaging 10.1 PPG (second most of his career) on 55.1% shooting, while also posting personal highs in rebounding (6.8), assists (2.1) and free-throw percentage (78.7%). Notably, he ranked second in the NBA in screen assists (5.4) and screen-assist scoring (12.6), trailing only reigning Defensive Player of the Year Rudy Gobert in both categories.

“Without getting into the numbers and the analytics of it, losing Cody probably hurt us a little bit,” said Hornets President of Basketball Operations and General Manager Mitch Kupchak. “Maybe we don’t make the playoffs even if we had Cody, but he was our most efficient big player. If you talk to him, I think you feel that the knee has been a problem for him. It didn’t allow him to run the court and then work on his explosion, which he could only do in the offseason. He came into the season just trying to manage a knee that had surgery and had some swelling.”

And the metrics prove Kupchak’s assessment is spot on. The Hornets held an offensive rating of 110.9 points scored per 100 possessions with Zeller on the floor this season, a number that dropped to 108.4 without him. Defensively, his presence resulted in a rating of 109.6 points allowed per 100 possessions, which then rose to 111.0 in his absence.

Zeller said in mid-April that he’s been feeling better lately and doesn’t plan on having surgery at any point this offseason. The main plan of attack for he and the Hornets Medical Staff moving forward will be figuring out a path to staying healthy for a full season.

“[My knee] is structurally fine,” he said. “There’s a little bit of wear and tear, but I’ve played basketball for 26 years. I think if you got a picture of every guy on our team and every guy in the NBA, there’d be wear and tear. The biggest issue is just the swelling, so hopefully we can address that. Hopefully, we’ll be past it and not have to worry about it again.”

It’s undeniable that the Hornets perform better with their starting center in the rotation. As they look to finally get over their playoff hump next season, Zeller’s health and corresponding contributions will be a major factor in whether or not the team’s goal becomes a reality.


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