Season Recap: Veteran Cody Zeller Continues Development in Transition Season

by Sam Perley

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Although it was a transition year for the Charlotte Hornets organization that focused heavily on youth and player development, seven-year veteran Cody Zeller made significant strides to his game both individually and from a leadership standpoint.

Zeller kicked off the season recording double-doubles as the team’s starting center in each of his first four appearances, something that hadn’t been done by a Charlotte player since Emeka Okafor in 2005. He averaged 15 points and over 13 rebounds during this stretch, a promising sign after left knee soreness sidelined him for the final 16 games of last season.

He put up 11 points on 52 percent shooting, eight rebounds and one assist in his first 17 outings overall, before a minor hip contusion knocked him out of a pair of games in late November. Having incorporated a new wrinkle to his game, the seven-footer was attempting close to two three-point attempts per game over this span, connecting on a respectable 36 percent clip.

“I shot more threes, which was a first step into hopefully shooting a better percentage and expanding my game,” Zeller said. “When I was making threes, it helped our offense and my individual game. Two years ago, I think a third of my points came off of assists from Nic [Batum], and then playing with Kemba [Walker], so much of my game was based on pick-and-roll with him. This year, I had to find different ways to score.”

Around the start of December, Hornets Head Coach James Borrego began tinkering with a three-center rotation of Zeller, Bismack Biyombo and Willy Hernangómez. Having missed significant chunks of the schedule each of the last three years because of various injuries, the primary motivation was to keep Zeller healthy and fresh for an entire season.

“Health has been my biggest focus,” Zeller explained. “A lot of credit to the medical team. I think I only missed two games [this season] because of injury and it had nothing to do with my knee or other issues that have bothered me in the past. I was able to take a little bit of time off once the season got postponed and now, I’m back to working out and I feel healthy. I’ve been in the gym every day, I’ve been on the court, in the weight room, the training room.”

Between Nov. 30 and March 11, Zeller started 22 out of 41 appearances and was a healthy scratch in just four contests. He finished the year with career-high averages in both scoring (11.1 PPG) and rebounding (7.1), and after going a combined 10-of-38 from three-point range over his first five NBA seasons, Zeller knocked down 18-of-75 such attempts this year.

“The game has really changed, but it’s helped me even going back to a few years ago,” Zeller said. “I’m a mobile big guy, so it’s really helped my career. Once I continue to shoot the ball better from range and more consistently, that’s going to prolong my career.”

He added, “We had a good year. I think this year was a transition year for us. I developed my individual game as well as brought along the young guys. I tried to use it as a developmental year, and I ended up with decent numbers. I think it was overall a beneficial year for me.”

Now the longest continuously-rostered player on the Hornets following Michael Kidd-Gilchrist’s departure in February following the trade deadline, Zeller took on much more of a leadership role this season than he had in any of his previous six beforehand.

“It was a tough year mentally for me, I’m not going to lie,” he added. “I think every year has been difficult for me for different reasons. I think early on in my career, it was about learning how to play in the NBA. I’ve dealt with injuries obviously, which are always tough. This year was tough mentally because it was more of a transition year and playing with younger guys that maybe weren’t as comfortable playing [right away]. I was there a couple years ago. It was a tough year, but I was able to use it as a developing year as well.”

Zeller has one year remaining on his current contract, while both Biyombo and Hernangómez will be unrestricted free agents this offseason. How the center position shakes out over the summer will certainly be something to watch from the Hornets heading into next year.

“We had to take one step back to take two steps forward,” Zeller said. “This year, we got to see what the young guys are capable of. We saw the improvement from those guys. Especially at the end of the year, it gives some excitement for our team moving forward. If we add a couple more pieces and a couple draft picks, we’ll be in a great place. It’s a long process, but by the end of the year, you started to see glimpses of what we can become.”

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