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Bobcats need big man and scorer; Zeller could be both

Charlotte Bobcats general manager Rich Cho has worked three NBA drafts here, and what he said Thursday night had to be his most effusive statement to date:

Cho said Indiana forward-center Cody Zeller, whom the Bobcats chose fourth overall, was the most athletic big man in this draft. Then Cho raised himself, saying Zeller might be the most athletic big man in years.

The Bobcats need to sell Zeller’s potential to a fan base that reacted skeptically, some critically, to the selection over alternatives Ben McLemore of Kansas, Nerlens Noel of Kentucky and Alex Len of Maryland.

With Zeller’s addition the Bobcats have drafted five players in the past four years, using lottery picks who could end up their starting five: Kemba Walker at the point, Gerald Henderson (restricted free agent) at shooting guard, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist at small forward, Zeller at power forward and Bismack Biyombo at center.

There’s no doubt the Bobcats need frontcourt scoring, considering the path they took in the 2011 and 2012 drafts. The Bobcats drafted Biyombo in 2011 and Kidd-Gilchrist in 2012.

Those two started most of last season and combined for just 14 points per game. So the third member of that frontcourt – whether he’s technically a center or a power forward – has to be a scorer and preferably a versatile one.

Zeller averaged 16.1 points on 59 percent shooting from the field in his two seasons with the Hoosiers. He played almost exclusively in the post for Indiana coach Tom Crean, but that was more a reflection of what his team needed than an indication he can’t stray to the perimeter.

During a pre-draft workout in Charlotte, Zeller shot particularly well from outside the NBA 3-point line, after taking just two 3-pointers in college. Bobcats coach Steve Clifford called that an “eye-opening’’ performance.

Clifford wants to run some high-post offense through Zeller, placing him at the “elbow’’ (where the free throw line meets the lane) as a shooter and passer. The Bobcats have a variety of “cutters’’ – players who run well diagonally to the rim – and Clifford thinks sometimes lifting Zeller to the high post could open offensive opportunities for Kidd-Gilchrist, Gerald Henderson and Jeff Taylor.

The other intriguing possibility is how Zeller and point guard Kemba Walker will collaborate in the pick-and-roll. If Zeller is an upgrade as a shooter over previous Bobcats big men, then it will be harder for opponents to trap Walker as he attempts to drive to the rim.

Walker texted Bobcats president of basketball operations Rod Higgins on draft night to say how excited he was about playing with Zeller. Zeller said Walker is one of his favorite players, dating back to when Walker and Zeller’s older brother, Tyler, played the same year in the McDonald’s high school All-American game.

Walker told Clifford he’d like to practice in Charlotte with the summer-league team next week before they leave for Las Vegas. That would be the first step toward Walker and Zeller seeing what they can do in tandem.

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