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Charlotte Bobcats rookie Cody Zeller starting preseason opener vs. Atlanta Hawks

ASHEVILLE New Charlotte Bobcats coach Steve Clifford entered training camp with four of his five starters mentally penciled in.

The toss-up was at power forward between No. 4 overall pick Cody Zeller and veteran Josh McRoberts. Zeller will start tonight when the Bobcats play their first exhibition, in Asheville, against the Atlanta Hawks. (7:30 p.m., at U.S. Cellular Center and on SportSouth).

McRoberts has been hurt much of camp with a sore left big toe. But Zeller has caught the attention of his teammates with a veteran’s understanding of all the nuanced ways he can help this team.

“He’s good,” point guard Kemba Walker said emphatically at practice Monday at UNC Asheville. “He isn’t worried about the pressure of being the No. 4 pick. He just knows basketball. He’s the guy we need on this team because it doesn’t matter (whether he puts up gaudy numbers). He doesn’t need to make this huge impact right away because what he does (naturally) already has impact without always being on the stat sheet.”

Such as?

“Moving the ball and setting random screens,” Walker said. “He makes guys better, and that’s tough from the (power forward) position. He does so many small things that help me and Gerald (Henderson) and Al (Jefferson). That’s the guy he is – team-first. Great to have him at that position.”

Clifford will start Walker, Henderson, Jefferson and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, just as he planned to before the team arrived in Asheville for training camp a week ago. He wanted to leave power forward open, but McRoberts’ toe settled the issue, at least for now.

“Josh has had so little time on the court he’s not nearly ready to play from a conditioning standpoint, nor a rhythm standpoint,” Clifford said. “He’s a ways away.”

Reserve center Brendan Haywood will sit out the Hawks game with a sprained foot. Jefferson missed part of practice Monday with a sore hamstring, but the injury didn’t appear serious.

Clifford and the players seem pleased with what they accomplished in training camp. Of course, they have only been playing against each other. Tuesday they start game-planning for an opponent.

“The plus of preseason games is getting to work on things important in the regular season – like locking into matchups with the other team,” Clifford said. “It’s coverages against (specific opponents). Those are different than basic principles.”

Walker pushed for strong attendance at the Bobcats’ voluntary workouts in September. He says it was obvious in camp that sped up the adjustment to Clifford’s priorities.

Offensive spacing has been a major emphasis. The ball tended to bunch up a lot on one side of the court last season, a factor in the Bobcats’ frequent shot-clock violations. Walker said the difference already is noteworthy.

“Our spacing is great. That’s when plays can be made at their best,” Walker said. “I notice it because I’m getting a lot of one-on-one with bigs, able to make passes I hadn’t made yet. Everything is open when they collapse on me, others are open.”

The Bobcats signed Jefferson to a three-year, $41 million contract because he’s such a skilled low-post scorer. That will force opponents to double-team Jefferson more than any previous Bobcats scorer.

“He’s such a dominant low-post player that people have to double him regardless. So as long as our spacing is correct, guys will be open,” Walker said. “Then all he has to do is make the right play. His passes have been great as far as finding us.

“Sometimes he sees the double-team before it comes. He makes really fast moves or gets it out and re-posts.”

Notes: The Hawks game is the only TV game on the Bobcats’ preseason schedule. … Their next three exhibitions are outside the Carolinas: Friday in Kansas City (Miami Heat), Saturday in Milwaukee (Bucks) and Oct. 15 in Canton, Ohio (Cleveland Cavaliers). … Of the three injured big men, Haywood’s foot is probably the most serious ailment.

Rick Bonnell: (704) 358-5129 Twitter: @rick_bonnell
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