One of the first things Charlotte Hornets management did Wednesday was check in on center Cody Zeller to remind him he’s wanted here.
It would be understandable if Zeller, the Hornets’ incumbent starter at center, wondered where he stood with the team that selected him fourth overall in the 2013 NBA draft. Tuesday night the Hornets traded for Dwight Howard, an eight-time All-Star whose career NBA statistics are likely Hall of Fame-worthy.
However, Zeller has 54 million reasons to feel loved. The Hornets signed him to a lucrative contract extension last fall that gives him massive wealth over the next four seasons.
But professionals want their careers to be about more than paychecks. Hornets coach Steve Clifford assured Zeller he continues to be part of this team’s core assets, that there is no reason to feel marginalized by Tuesday’s trade.
According to Clifford, Zeller was philosophical about the deal, mentioning that this means he won’t have to play against Howard four times each season. (Remember, Howard clobbered Zeller with an elbow to the head last season that got Howard ejected in Charlotte).
I do think there’s enough opportunity for both Howard and Zeller in this rotation. The Hornets’ depth was horrible last season; having two able centers isn’t a dilemma, it’s an opportunity.
Clifford said at a news conference Wednesday that he hasn’t penciled in Howard or Zeller as the projected starter. My guess is Howard will start because he is so accustomed to doing so. Zeller has played both as a starter and a reserve, sharing most of the center minutes with Al Jefferson before Jefferson signed with the Indiana Pacers last summer.
Regardless of whether Howard starts, it’s no given he’d be the one finishing close games. Howard’s career 57 percent foul shooting (compared to Zeller’s 73 percent) can make him a liability in the final minutes. There were several times last season, including a playoff game against the Washington Wizards, when Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer sat Howard for long stretches of fourth quarters.
Zeller has been solid at the NBA level since the Hornets stopped trying to use him as a stretch-4 (a power forward with 3-point shooting range). An injury to Jefferson pushed Zeller into the starting lineup at center. Center is where he belongs, using his speed and quickness to get to the rim against bulkier 7-foot types. Zeller sets precise picks and rolls efficiently to the basket.
Howard also is proficient in the pick-and-roll. Point guard Kemba Walker should be thrilled by this latest trade because he’ll now spend most of his minutes next season with an adept pick-and-roll big man.
So long as Zeller’s minutes don’t plummet, he might enjoy playing with the reserves. He should feast against opposing teams’ backup centers.
Also, Zeller has gotten beaten up somewhat of late. Sharing time with Howard might reduce some of the wear on his body.
By all reports, Zeller loves Charlotte, and he’s never struck me as the selfish sort. With an open mind, this can work for him.
And more importantly, for the Hornets.