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Charlotte Bobcats rookie Cody Zeller showing progress

It was something short of an explosion, but it certainly was progress for Charlotte Bobcats rookie Cody Zeller on Monday night.

The 15 points he scored against the Washington Wizards were his NBA high. He also grabbed eight rebounds. He played plenty of meaningful minutes in a game that had stakes as far as the Bobcats’ playoff situation.

Sure beats what happened during November and December, when he struggled to stay on the court without fouling. The fourth overall pick in June’s draft is finding his way in the NBA, and it shows up in recent numbers:

In his first 55 games, Zeller averaged five points and four rebounds, shot 38 percent from the field. Over the past 19 games, he’s averaging eight points and 5.1 rebounds and shooting 52 percent.

“You’ve got to make such quicker decisions,” Zeller said of the difference between college ball at Indiana and the NBA. “If there’s a play there, you’ve got to make it because of the shorter shot clock than college. If there’s a shot, you’ve got to take it. If there’s a gap you’ve got to drive it.

“And you’ve got to stay confident in your skills.”

Bobcats coach Steve Clifford always valued those skills. He liked Zeller as a shooter, ballhandler and most importantly decision-maker. But it didn’t particularly surprise Clifford it would take a while for Zeller to catch up to pro basketball nuances.

Clifford thinks that difference – from the best conferences in college basketball to the starters in any NBA game – is wider than the public or most college players understand.

“The two things that are so different are the pick-and-roll game and the great players,” said Clifford, a former college coach. “In college you don’t have to worry so much defensively about the 3 (from frontcourt players), so it’s a lot easier to (defend).

“The great players in this league are phenomenal. The great players in college are still kids. They just don’t have the maturity of game, the understanding of what they can do. That’s what makes the defensive side of this much, much more difficult.”

Zeller’s challenge initially was figuring out how to defend these grown-men power forwards without getting into such quick foul trouble that he’d have to come out. That’s coming, both coach and player say, allowing Zeller more chance to express himself at the offensive end.

“That’s a big thing,” Clifford noted. “He has to be able to contain the ball, contest shots, make it harder on the other guy to get to shots, and do all that without fouling.”

Zeller said some of this is just the natural repetition of an NBA season. He now has seen each of the 29 other teams at least twice this season. That’s providing data so every new game doesn’t feel like a mystery.

“We’ve played some of these teams three or four times,” Zeller said. “I know what’s coming with each individual matchup. I’m playing with more energy, and it’s a lot of fun with this playoff push.”

Zeller certainly buys Clifford’s observation that the talent and skill level of the NBA can be a shock to any rookie’s perspective.

“Everyone on the court is capable of having a really big game, and they’re waiting for you to make one little mistake,” Zeller said.

“Then it’s a layup or an open 3. You’ve got to be really into the details. There was stuff I could get away with in college on athleticism or being stronger than the other guy. Here everybody is just that athletic and just that strong. So little margin for error.”

Rick Bonnell: 704-358-5129; Twitter: @rick_bonnell
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