Fresh Start, Return to Bigger Role Awaits Cody Zeller in 2018-19 Season

By Sam Perley

The start of the 2018-19 NBA season is less than a week away and it’s hard to envision any player more anxious for Opening Night than Charlotte Hornets center Cody Zeller. After what the five-year veteran has physically endured the last two seasons, it’s completely understandable.

In the midst of his best NBA season to date in 2016-17, Zeller suffered a concussion and quad injury in the span of three weeks that sidelined him for 16 total games during a critical part of the schedule. Last year, a torn left meniscus and ensuing recovery limited him to a career-low 33 appearances, all of which were off the bench.

But after a long, arduous summer of rehab, working out and above all, patience, the fourth overall pick in 2013 is primed for a comeback season under new Head Coach James Borrego.

“It took a little while to regain my quad and calf strength, but I’m finally in a position where I’m healthy and excited to go into the season and stay healthy,” Zeller said on Hornets Media Day. “That’s my biggest goal of the year. Stay healthy and be productive when I’m out there. I’ve missed too many games.”

Zeller took a month off after last season ended, but was strictly limited to just 20 minutes of spot shooting when he got back on the court. Week by week, he and the Hornets new training staff added more and more movement until he was finally able to play five-on-five with no restrictions.

It was a far longer process than he expected, but one that looking back, was certainly for the best. If the Hornets want to have the type of season that they envision having, a healthy and effective Zeller will be imperative.

“You can work on your shot, you can work on getting stronger. You can spend a lot of time in the gym and weight room, but your body is going to heal at its own pace,” he said. “I spent a lot of time getting healthy, eating healthy [and] in the cold tub. Hopefully, the combination will help me stay healthy throughout the year.”

During that aforementioned career year in 2016-17, Zeller finished with averages of 10.3 points on 57.1 percent shooting, 6.5 rebounds, 1.6 assists and 1.0 steal in 62 appearances. He ranked third in the NBA in screen assists (5.9), a statistic that calculates how many points Charlotte players scored directly off Zeller setting screens.

“He’s a major part of what we’re trying to do here,” stated Borrego. “His pace, how he plays, he runs the floor, great screen-setter, gets guys open, very unselfish player. He does all the dirty work, gets us extra possessions. The number one thing for Cody is staying healthy. So far, he’s managing that, we’re managing that for him. When we have to get him off the court, we’ll get him off the court.”

“It’s exciting for me to hear because I enjoy playing at a faster pace,” said Zeller, when asked his thoughts on the team’s new up-tempo style of offense. “Shooting the ball, playing very free – I think that plays right into my strengths. I think it fits me well.”

Over the last two seasons, the Hornets are just 25-44 in games Zeller doesn’t play, which says as much about his value as it does about the team’s previous lack of depth at the position. The organization has been diligent with its projected starting center’s health this offseason and with Willy Hernangómez (who has looked much improved this preseason), Frank Kaminsky and Bismack Biyombo now in the fold, contingency options are also in place.

One fairly interesting wrinkle the Hornets are implementing with regards to Zeller this season is giving him the green light to shoot more three-pointers. Coach Borrego insists the big man isn’t going to be hunting down such options, but is expected to shoot when he has the space.

Prior to the start of the 2015-16 season, the Hornets tinkered with turning Zeller into a stretch four, but year-long injuries to center Al Jefferson forced him back to the five. So far this preseason, the Indiana product is 2-of-4 from distance, matching his total such makes from all of last year.

Zeller has looked good so far in training camp and through his three exhibition outings – he rested the team’s road game in Boston back on Sept. 30. His 14.0 points on 60.0 percent shooting, 4.7 rebounds, 1.3 assists and 1.3 blocks look solid in the stats sheet, but no physical limitations or setbacks is the most encouraging sign thus far.

“The goal is to get him on the floor for 82 games. That’s the number one priority and he’s had a healthy camp,” said Borrego. “Offensively, he’s been doing what we ask. He puts pressure on the rim, he runs, he fits with that first unit. Now, we have to have more of a defensive presence and he has that in him. We just need more of it.”

Things are trending upwards for the Charlotte Hornets and Cody Zeller, who looks as poised as ever to leave those troublesome injuries in the past this upcoming season.