Charlotte Hornets

Cody Zeller might not be great, but he does so much good for the Charlotte Hornets

I once asked an NBA scout how the league so underrated Josh Howard coming out of Wake Forest that a future All-Star was the last pick of the 2003 draft’s fist round.

The scout replied that since Howard wasn’t great at anything, the NBA overlooked the fact that he was good at everything. That sort of explains why so many people shrug at Charlotte Hornets center Cody Zeller.

The thing Zeller does at an elite level is set screens that are precise in angle and timing. The only place that looks sexy is at a coach’s clinic. But the sum of what Zeller does makes the Hornets better, and a lot of what he does best ends up on teammates’ statistics.

Except Monday, when the situation was right for Zeller to get his.

The Golden State Warriors focused their defense on slowing down Kemba Walker, and Warriors center DeMarcus Cousins wasn’t exactly up for chasing Zeller all over the court. Zeller took advantage, scoring a career-high 28 points.

To say Zeller’s shots were within the offense would be an understatement. It took until midway through the fourth quarter for Zeller to miss one. He made his first 11 and finished 13 of 14 from the field.

Zeller “gee, goshed” in his post-game interview, saying most of his attempts were layups. That’s true, but it isn’t the whole story. Zeller was delivering an abundance of energy and Cousins appeared to want no part of taking chase.

Ultimately, it didn’t make a difference in the final score, with the Warriors beating the Hornets 121-110 at Spectrum Center. But tip your hat to Zeller. Next time you think of him as a nice little complementary piece, look harder.

No longer a tease

Based on his first couple of NBA seasons, I thought of Zeller as a tease — someone with rare speed and quickness for his size who couldn’t figure out how to apply that athleticism to his craft game-after-game at the pro level. Then-general manager Rich Cho had spent an abundance of time on Indiana’s campus the winter before the 2013 draft, then selected Zeller fourth overall.

By about his third season, Zeller started figuring out where his shots were. It certainly helped that the Hornets added Nic Batum to feed him passes in the post. Those two had a synergy almost immediately, and it’s carried forward.

The problem in what’s been Zeller’s 5 1/2-season career has been keeping him healthy. It’s been a variety of injures — a shoulder, a broken nose, knee surgery last season and a fractured hand this season. When James Borrego took over as Hornets coach, he said keeping Zeller healthy was such a priority that he’d sit Zeller out of some practices.

The broken hand cost Zeller about a month of games, but that injury had a compensation of sorts. It freed up Zeller to work on his lower body, to get in great shape for maybe the first time since the nagging knee injury that required surgery last season.

Zeller says he’s very fresh right now at a time when many NBA veterans are hoping the All-Star break got them a second wind. Zeller isn’t going to score 28 points on a regular basis, and his nine rebounds Monday were two above his average. Borrego said Monday’s performance validated what he saw Saturday against the Brooklyn Nets, when Zeller finished with 13 points and 11 boards.

Solid is good, remember

The NBA is about “Wow,” a highlight-driven experience where degree-of-difficulty dunks are worshiped and an abundance of 3-pointers gets you on Instagram.

That’s cool and all, but guys like Zeller are the lubricant to the process; they set screens that free Walker for those 3s or grab the rebound that puts in motion a Miles Bridges dunk.

That fans don’t find Zeller cool enough is OK, so long as you remember this:

If every other Hornets player did his job as efficiently and unselfishly as Zeller does his, we wouldn’t be wondering if this team makes the playoffs.

Rick Bonnell is a sportswriter/columnist for the Charlotte Observer. He has been in Charlotte since 1988, when the NBA arrived, and has covered the Hornets continuously. A former president of the Pro Basketball Writers Association, Bonnell also writes occasionally on the NFL and college sports.
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