Regardless of Role, Zeller’s Value Undeniable to Hornets

By Sam Perley

There is never any shortage of NBA players who show up at the start of training camp every year claiming to be in the best shape of their lives. It’s an all-too-common phenomenon that hasn’t gone unnoticed by Charlotte Hornets center Cody Zeller.

“My favorite part about Media Day is there’s 450 NBA players [and] everyone thinks they’re going to report how they had the best summer,” Zeller said jokingly on Sept. 25. “They did the most revolutionary workouts like underwater boxing or something. I just want to come here and be like ‘Yeah, I just laid on the couch all summer, working on my granny threes, my half-court shots, I’m out of shape. I feel terrible.'"

The reality is though that Zeller’s last few months have been anything but lazy or unproductive. When broached on his offseason activities, the fifth-year veteran confessed to sticking to a fairlyuncomplicated, straight-forward routine.

“[I did] the old-fashion lifting weights and shooting. It’s been good. I put on about 15 pounds and this is the first summer where I haven’t had any surgery or rehab to do,” said Zeller. “Really,I had a full summer of working out. I’ve been in the weight room a lot [and] been on the court a lot shooting. I’m excited about the team and excited about how I feel right now."

Zeller stated the primary motivation behind adding some extra weight and strength is to increase his chances of staying healthy this season. Centers are already prone to additional contact and the extra bulk should hopefully help Zeller stay on the court after he missed 20 games last year with various injuries. His absences were largely felt with the Hornets going just 3-17 with their big man on the sidelines.

Besides adding more muscle this offseason, Zeller also gained a new teammate in the Charlotte frontcourt with the acquisition of Dwight Howard from the Atlanta Hawks. Although Howard’s arrival will shift Zeller primarily to a bench role, the Indiana University product is still quiteeager to see what the two can do together this season.

“I’m excited about Dwight, everything that he brings. [He’s] such a strong, physical player,” said Zeller. “I think he’s going to help us a lot, especially on the defensive end. I think it’ll help me a lot as well just in the few weeks that we’ve had to work with him. Not only practicing with him, but he’s very willing to teach and there’s so much to learn from a guy like that that’s been to the NBA Finals and been through so much.”

He added, “I’m excited about learning from [Dwight]. I think he’ll be able to be physical and wear down the centers in the first group and then I’ll be coming in fresh. I think we’ll be able to play well with each other, subbing in for each other.

Zeller also touched on the somewhat confrontational history the two have had going against each other in recent years.

“We were talking that both of us hate playing against each other, but I think that’s a credit to both of us and kind of our style of play,” said Zeller. “We’re both so competitive. That’s what a lot of our differences led to just because neither one of us was willing to back down. Neither one of us was willing to give up an inch."

Hornets Head Coach Steve Clifford is adamant about not only Zeller and Howard’sinterchangeability, but also how the team will lean heavily on the pair this season.

“One of the things I like the most is Cody is so good because of his screening and his rolling as is Dwight. We don’t have to change a lot that way. They play offensively in a very similar manner,” said Clifford. “[Cody’s] going to be a major, major part of things. If we’re going to have an exceptional year, then both of those guys are going to have to play well.”

Zeller (5.9) and Howard (3.8) ranked third and ninth, respectively, in the league last season in screen assists per game. As a team, the Hornets led the NBA in this category (13.1 per game), nearly half of which came via Zeller.

Last year, Zeller became one of just three seven-footers since the start of the 2014-15 NBA campaign to average at least 10.0 points, 6.0 rebounds, 1.0 assist and 1.0 steal per game for an entire season (Steven Adams, Nikola Vucevic).

He also ranked 13th overall in the NBA last season in defensive real plus-minus (3.42), meaning Charlotte allowed nearly three-and-a-half fewer points per 100 defensive possessions with Zeller on the court compared to when he wasn’t. With regards to net plus-minus, he finished 27th out of 468 qualified players last year (3.35), after ranking 60th at the end of the 2015-16 season (1.95).

His traditional statistics don’t necessarily jump off the page, but Zeller’s value to the Charlotte Hornets is almost entirely indisputable at this point of his career. Whether he’s in the starting lineup or coming off the bench, his intangibles and attitude will be an integral component of the team’s success moving forward.