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Cody Zeller looked quite rusty in first summer-league appearance

hornets
Isabella Bartolucci - ibartolucci@charlotteobserver.co
Cody Zeller talks with a coach after the Charlotte Hornet's practice on Monday, July 7, 2014.

LAS VEGAS Charlotte Hornets 7-footer Cody Zeller reminded the media Monday this was the first time he’d played 5-on-5 basketball since the playoff series against the Miami Heat.

Certainly he looked out of synch, particularly during the first half of a gruesome 95-72 summer-league loss to the New York Knicks. Zeller seemingly should dominate these games, yet at halftime – with his team down 62-31 – he had six points, two turnovers and no rebounds in 16 minutes.

Zeller had a decent second half to finish with 18 points and four rebounds, but by then the Knicks led by as much as 40 points.

The Hornets’ entry in the Las Vegas Summer League is primarily about Zeller and first-round picks Noah Vonleh and P.J. Hairston tuning up their games. With Josh McRoberts leaving in free agency for the Heat, Zeller needs to step into a bigger role.

Monday, after Zeller missed the first two games in Las Vegas because of his brother’s wedding, was no promising start.

“He played like he just came off the plane,” associate head coach Patrick Ewing said of Zeller. “We need for him to do it at both ends, not just look to score.”

To say the Hornets’ interior defense was bad during the first half would be kind. The Knicks outrebounded the Hornets 19-5 and outscored them in the lane 26-6. In 2013, the Hornets used the No. 4 overall pick on Zeller and for him to grab no rebounds in 16 minutes seemed unacceptable.

“He’s going to have to grow up and grow up fast,” Ewing said. “With Josh not being there, I don’t know who our starting (power forward) will be. We need for him to improve in all those areas he didn’t do well in last season.”

Specifically, Zeller struggled as a rookie to hold his ground defensively in the lane. That weakness led to fouls that sometimes sent him to the bench.

He lacked what coach Steve Clifford called the “functional strength” to rumble with stronger, if less athletic, NBA big men.

Zeller has worked hard back in Charlotte this offseason. He’s at the practice facility as much as any Hornets veteran. But being pushed around by relative unknowns for the Knicks – Jordan Henriquez and Jeremy Tyler – was not encouraging.

“Summer league is no indication of how the team or you individually will do during the season,” Zeller said. “I think everyone is trying to use it to get better this time of year. I’ve got three months until the beginning of the season. I’m trying to work on some things.”

This game started miserably for Zeller as the Hornets went to him on their first two possessions. The first time Henriquez blocked his shot and the second time Zeller was called for a charge. Zeller finished with three of the Hornets’ 16 turnovers, which he said were partially because of playing with unfamiliar teammates.

“It’s essentially a college game,” Zeller said of summer league. “Sometimes guys aren’t in the right spots. In the NBA details are everything. It feels like I’m making the adjustment from the NBA back to college.”

The Hornets are signing Marvin Williams to have a veteran option at power forward. But Zeller’s development obviously is a high priority, all the more so now with McRoberts’ departure.

Ewing said, “He has to continue to rebound and block shots – he’s 7-feet tall. He needs a go-to move. The things a normal (pro) basketball player needs to have.”

And the timetable for all this?

“He has time,” Ewing said. “Hopefully not too long.”

Rick Bonnell: 704-358-5129; @rick_bonnell
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