Charlotte Hornets power forward Cody Zeller looks improved in his second NBA season; he’s making 18-foot jump shots, rebounding aggressively and creating plays for teammates.
For Zeller to reach full impact, though, he needs to clean up a chronic problem: A propensity to foul.
He has committed by far the most fouls this preseason among Hornets – 26 in seven exhibitions. That’s an average of a foul for every six minutes he plays. Coach Steve Clifford said one of his team’s defensive flaws is committing needless fouls, along with not getting back enough in defensive transition.
Clifford needs Zeller to clean this up, but the coach is also sympathetic to the problem. Seven-footer Zeller is transitioning from college center to NBA power forward, sometimes guarding far from the rim. After a season into his pro career, that’s still a somewhat foreign experience.
“Cody has made great progress this preseason. But for him to be an all-around player, the fouling has to come down a step,” Clifford said Tuesday at his annual preseason luncheon with Charlotte media.
“We’re asking him (and rookie Noah Vonleh) to be more comfortable doing something they’ve never done.”
The Hornets used lottery picks to draft Indiana big men Zeller and Vonleh in the past two drafts. Clifford said both are used to staying in the lane defensively, more like centers.
Rookie Vonleh, the ninth pick in June, had surgery in early September to repair a sports hernia. He played as a Hornet for the first time in Monday’s exhibition loss to the Atlanta Hawks, committing four fouls in 19 minutes.
Clifford is high on his potential but said Vonleh won’t be in the rotation anytime soon.
“He’s not even close to being ready to play” in a regular-season game, Clifford said.
“He’s got a lot of talent. He’s eager and athletic. There was a lot of good, a lot of bad (in Monday’s debut). Noah was the one guy who could not afford to miss September and October.”
Clifford said it’s possible Vonleh can sufficiently catch up by midseason to be in the rotation. The Hornets’ relative weakness is big-man depth, so minutes are there. Clifford hopes not to play center Al Jefferson 40 minutes a game, as he was forced to do in the playoff run last season.
Wing rotation: Clifford said he’s still undecided how to use his wealth of shooting guards and small forwards once the regular season begins Oct. 29 against the Milwaukee Bucks.
Injuries to Gerald Henderson and Lance Stephenson have kept Clifford from running the anticipated regular-season rotations. That has benefited Gary Neal and P.J. Hairston.
Neal has had the best preseason among Hornets and rookie Hairston, shooting 45.5 percent from 3-point range, has worked himself into the discussion for regular-season minutes.
Beyond his 3-point range, Clifford said Hairston has a “natural physicality” that is appealing.
Clifford said he can’t play more than four wing players (add small forward Michael Kidd-Gilchrist to that group) and expect them to play with any rhythm. As Clifford put it, “intramural substitutions” don’t work in the NBA.
Small forward Jeff Taylor has been away from the team since being arrested on a domestic violence charge in Michigan in September. Henderson has missed all seven exhibitions after suffering a strained hamstring.
Henderson’s status: Henderson said he hopes to play in Thursday’s final exhibition at home against the Indiana Pacers.
Clifford plans to use Thursday and an intrasquad scrimmage Saturday to judge how much he can count on Henderson at the outset of the season.
Despite Henderson’s lack of a preseason, Clifford prefers to lean on the fifth-season pro if he’s ready physically: “I have a confidence level we do the right things” with Henderson playing.
Here and there: Clifford on the injuries – “You have a vision or a plan of what would be. It’s nothing close to that” right now.
• Jefferson could have played Monday but sat out partly because of ankle soreness, Clifford said.
• It sure sounds as if Clifford is predisposed to keeping power forward-center Jason Maxiell as 15th man. Said Clifford, “He’s a tough guy.”
• Clifford said Vonleh could at some point benefit from a stint in the Development League, but for now he’s better off getting up to speed by practicing with the Hornets.