Charlotte Hornets

Value of injured Cody Zeller? Look no further than Hornets’ record when he can’t play

Sometimes Charlotte Hornets coach James Borrego walks off the court thinking center Cody Zeller played just an OK game.

Then he flips on the video for further review.

“I lot of times I don’t see all he does until I go back and watch it on film,” Borrego said. “Cody’s production is not going to show up in a box score every night.”

It sure shows up in the final result. The month of January has been another reminder how the Hornets miss Zeller when he’s injured. They won two of their first seven games after Zeller broke his right hand in the first half of a Dec. 31 home game against the Orlando Magic.

That’s pretty much how the Hornets have fared whenever Zeller is out. In the three seasons prior to this one, the Hornets’ record was 27-42 when Zeller couldn’t play.

It’s understandable why some fans have a hard time wrapping their heads around Zeller’s importance. He’s not a prolific scorer or rebounder, and he isn’t an intimidating presence as a rim-protector. His shooting range has improved over his five-plus NBA seasons, but it’s not as if he’s drawing opposing big men out of the lane with lots of 3-pointers.

The counter to all that half-empty description: There is nothing in basketball he does poorly. He’s above-average athletically for the center position, particularly as a straight-line runner. The thing he does best is set screens that are precise in both angle and timing, springing teammates for better shots.

Think of Zeller as a lubricant: When he plays, things go smoother for the Hornets as a whole.

“He knows who he is, what he does, and he does it every time,” said Hornets forward Nic Batum, who collaborates so effectively with Zeller in the pick-and-roll.

“He is one of the most valuable players on our team. Kemba (Walker) is the best player, of course, but Cody is so valuable.”

The word “valuable” can be defined many ways. By the measure of “hardest to replace,” Zeller is way up there. That is why Borrego called it as a priority in the preseason to safeguard Zeller’s health however possible. Now, they’re rehabbing this injury while trying to get by with three other big men.

The alternatives

The Hornets have three other centers in Bismack Biyombo, Willy Hernangomez and Frank Kaminsky. Borrego said shortly after Zeller’s injury that the Hornets are as deep at center as at any position That’s true, but it doesn’t tell the entire story.

The Hornets have a lot of big bodies, all of whom are good enough players to be on NBA rosters and have guaranteed contracts. However, none of those three guys provides the overall solidness Zeller brings.

Biyombo is the best defender. Kaminsky is a varied scorer. Hernangomez is the compromise between those two extremes, but didn’t play consistently enough, when he got the first chance to start in Zeller’s absence, to retain the minutes.

Borrego turned to Biyombo, who has offered some stability defensively. However, the biggest impression Zeller’s injury has left is not a distinction between these three backups, but how much they need Zeller healthy.

Feels the pain

Zeller knows he’s been hurt a lot; it’s in part a by-product of the physical way he must play against centers who frequently are bigger and heavier. He was limited to 33 and 35 games the past two seasons; last season due primarily to a knee injury that required surgery.

It’s been hard for Zeller to watch his team in his absence.

“I’ve missed so many games the past two years. To have it happen on a freak play like that (his hand bracing for a slight collision with an opponent) is hard. I spent the summer trying to get healthy so I could play the whole season.

“It’s tough mentally (because) I’m a team guy.”

The good news, at least relatively: Zeller has already been cleared for individual (non-contact) drills. He can even do a little shooting and dribbling with his right hand. That sure beats last season, when his knee injury kept him from even conditioning.

“He can lift, he can condition,” Borrego said. “And he’s getting some rest, which could help.”

Rick Bonnell: 704-358-5129, @rick_bonnell

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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