It’s a given that Cody Zeller is the Charlotte Hornets’ best option at center when available.
Those last two words have unfortunately been key regarding Zeller’s career arc; as often as not, he hasn’t been available the past two seasons.
Zeller has played exactly half of the Hornets’ 164 regular-season games since the start of the 2017-18 season. Some of the injuries have been random — a hand fracture or a quad bruise — but the constant has been a left knee that required surgery two years ago and has since flared up with pain intermittently.
When you ask coach James Borrego his No. 1 goal for Zeller this season, he succinctly replies, “Keep him healthy.” Simple, but not easy.
“I think I’m in a good spot right now. I’ve had some freak things happen to me. Hopefully, the worst of that is behind me,” said Zeller, who missed the last 16 games of last season with knee soreness, with the Hornets in a playoff race.
Entering his seventh NBA season, Zeller told Borrego he feels the healthiest he has in several years. A lot of keeping him that way is preventive medicine, something general manager Mitch Kupchak addressed with several medical-staff hires when he took over the basketball operation before last season.
That means treatment, but it’s also a less-is-more approach to off days — limit Zeller’s participation in practice, particularly during the grind of the regular season, to preserve his body for 82 games.
“I think we’ll be really cautious,” Zeller said. “Obviously, I want to be on the court as much as I can during games, but how much I practice — even putting up extra shots and (weight) lifting” will be closely monitored and regulated.
Zeller would be the first to say he’s not a dominant NBA center. But he’s the most skilled of the three Hornets options at the position, the best balance between offensive and defensive impact.
Willy Hernangomez has a knack for scoring but struggled as a rim-protector in the back of Charlotte’s defense when he filled in for Zeller in January. Bismack Biyombo is a better defender, but he’s limited offensively.
The fourth overall pick in the 2013 draft, Zeller has career averages of 8.2 points and 5.7 rebounds. At 7-foot and 240 pounds, he often gives up about 30 pounds to the centers he guards. But he tends to be faster and quicker than most NBA centers.
Perhaps his best skill doesn’t show up in the boxscore; he’s a precise and relentless screen-setter, which doesn’t necessarily lead to his points or assists, but sure makes life easier for teammates.
“It doesn’t show up in a boxscore, but he takes pride in it,” Borrego said. “It’s a very unselfish act by a player to set a good screen and free somebody else.”
The Hornets need to explore every offensive asset this preseason, with All-Star point guard Kemba Walker gone to the Boston Celtics. There is no obvious substitute for Walker as a “go-to guy.” So this will be more of an ensemble offense, and Zeller’s screen-setting and ball movement takes on added importance.
“So much of our offense was high pick-and-rolls with Kemba. We don’t have any pick-and-roll players now quite like Kemba, but we do have guys who attack the rim pretty well,” Zeller said. “Not guys who create as much action as Kemba did, so I’ll have to do a little more of that — creating action for (Dwayne) Bacon or Miles (Bridges).
“We just have to find other ways to play. I think we’re going to play faster, and it’s not going to be so much one-on-one play. It’s going to take some time to figure out.”
Zeller turns 27 Saturday. He realized recently that makes him the fifth-oldest player on this roster. With all his injury history, he could consider age a threatening concept. Instead, he’s enjoying being more of an elder/mentor.
“I do feel like one of the old guys, but it’s good,” Zeller said. “With (so many) younger guys coming along. I feel like I know what’s going on, so I can kind of help out.”