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Charlotte Hornets will look for bigger contribution from Cody Zeller

Apr 23, 2014; Miami, FL, USA; Charlotte Bobcats center Cody Zeller (left) talks with forward Josh McRoberts (right) against the Miami Heat in game two during the first round of the 2014 NBA Playoffs at American Airlines Arena. Mandatory Credit: Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

The Charlotte Hornets are buzzing  again. However, they need to deal with the very real problem of losing their starting power forward, glue man Josh McRoberts, to Miami this off-season. It remains to be seen whether the void left at the starting position will be filled by Zeller or recently signed Marvin Williams. Either way it is expected that Zeller will be asked to play a larger role in his sophomore season in Charlotte.

Although he was Second Team All-Rookie and performed much better after the all-star break, Cody Zeller’s rookie campaign largely fell short of expectations. Part of this is due to the fact that Zeller was drafted considerably higher than he likely would have been selected in a “normal” draft, and was thus burdened with unreasonable expectations.

Nevertheless, the two things that Zeller did really well in college carried over into the NBA last season: he ran the floor and got to the free throw line. Forty-three percent of his points last season came off of free throws (29.8 percent) and fast breaks (13.1  percent) combined. He was fouled on 18.7  percent of his field goal attempts, and shot 73% from the free throw line. The percentage of his points that he scored in transition was very high for a big and compared favorably to other fast end-to-end big men such as Anthony Davis (13.5 %), Andre Drummond (15.3%) and Mason Plumlee (16%). Zeller also used his end-to-end speed well on defense, where he was able to block or disrupt a number of opposing breakaway attempts.

Part of Charlotte’s expectation in drafting Zeller was that he would showcase a solid mid-range jump shot that we hadn’t seen from him at Indiana. That did not go as planned. You can see below, courtesy of Austin Clemens and Nylon Calculus, that Zeller was by-and-large a below average shooter across the board in his rookie season.

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Zeller was especially horrific from mid-range, shooting 28.4 percent on 148 attempts, and his poor mid-range shooting totally disrupted his offensive game. Most of Zeller’s offensive possessions came from the high post out of pick-and-pop sets. Because he was such an ineffective shooter, defenders sagged off of him, which mitigated his quickness on drives to the basket. When he did shoot, he was noticeably hesitant and too often took an unnecessary dribble instead of confidently and decisively squaring up for the jumper. To Zeller’s credit, he moved away from his inefficient mid-range jump shot as the season moved on. Before the all-star break, 21 percent of his points came off of mid-range jump shots, whereas after the break only 12 percent of his points resulted from mid-range jumpers. As a result, his overall field goal percentage jumped dramatically. Before the break, he shot 38 percent from the field. After the break, Zeller improved to 50.7 percent, putting him at 42.6 percent for the season.

When receiving the ball in the high post, Zeller preferred driving to the basket. In some respects, this is a good thing because he’s quick enough and possesses enough coordination to do some pretty impressive things with the basketball. However, his driving game, especially given that his defender typically played a couple of steps off of him due to Zeller’s poor shooting, was a mixed bag. Zeller’s favorite move on drives seemed to be the “I’m just going to take off in the air and hope for the best” maneuver. Predictably, this resulted in a lot of difficult, low efficiency attempts around the rim.

To make matters worse, Zeller is short limbed (6’10.75″ wing span) and lacking strength. As such, Zeller had a lot of problems dealing with NBA length and strength in the paint (16 percent of his close shots were blocked this season). Because it was fairly difficult for Zeller to get his shot off, he treated the basketball like a hot potato around the basket, instead of taking his time and employing the nifty bag of post moves that he utilized in Bloomington.

Coach Steve Clifford discussed Zeller’s strength problem during an interview with the Charlotte Observer, noting that Zeller needs to add “functional strength”:

“It’s his hips, his core, his back. It takes some time,” Clifford said. “When Blake Griffin hits (a rookie), normally he goes straight (to where he wants to be) and the other guy goes that way.”

It’s clear that his lack of strength affected his finishing ability and, just as importantly, his confidence.

That’s especially a problem for someone who relies on their high motor as much as Zeller does. His combination of athleticism and persistence resulted in a lot of offensive rebounds, put-back dunks, and tip ins this season. With added core and upper body strength this season, Zeller could take another step forward at the rim.

On defense, Zeller struggled like most rookies do. Zeller is quick enough to defend the pick and roll, it will just take some time for him to adjust to complicated NBA schemes. Being an effective pick-and-roll defender will be important for Zeller because it seems unlikely he’ll ever be much of a rim protector because of his short limbs.

By all accounts, Zeller is a gym rat. He has a chance to start this season, but his game isn’t going anywhere until he becomes more accurate from the mid-range. He only attempted one three-pointer this season, and he isn’t expected to become a three point threat any time soon. However, if he’s able to keep defenders honest with his jump shot, his quickness on drives will be better utilized. Some of his limitations are significant, such as his length and smallish frame. But it’s clear that many of Zeller’s problems are correctable and common among young players in the league. Anthony Davis shot a similarly terrible 29 % from mid-range during his rookie season and made the leap all-the-way to 40.1% during his second season in the league (league average is 39%). As Zeller continues to get stronger and more confident, he’ll be able to slow his game down and more effectively capitalize on his versatile offensive tool kit. Look for Zeller to continue to provide energy and second chance points this season, even if the development of his jumpshot takes longer than expected.

Gregory Mason