Charlotte Hornets

Now healthy, Hornets center Cody Zeller has gone from afterthought to cornerstone

Over his first six NBA seasons in Charlotte, center Cody Zeller was attached to an abundance of “nots.”

Not quite strong enough. Not a rim-protector. Not a prolific scorer. Not durable.

You know what he is this season to the Charlotte Hornet?

Not replaceable.

There is no wider gap between a starter and his backups than at center. Zeller is averaging career highs in points (14 per game), rebounds (12.4) and minutes (29). He’s healthy — no given the past two seasons — and he has expanded his game into 3-point shooting and greater ball-movement.

The emergence of Devonte Graham and rookie P.J. Washington have been bigger stories, perhaps, but Zeller’s steady play has been as impactful as anything in the Hornets’ surprising 3-3 start.

“We want to play through him,” Hornets coach James Borrego described of Zeller’s role. “Cody allows us to play a number of ways, especially with pace. He’s a great runner. He starts our offense in transition.

“And he has to play-make for us — on and off the ball. He’s been primarily a screener (offensively) over the years. Right now, I want the ball in his hands at the top of the (key) in DHO (dribble-handoffs).”

That reflects a dramatic change since All-NBA point guard Kemba Walker signed with the Boston Celtics in July. Walker was the beginning, middle and end of Charlotte’s offense; by Zeller’s estimate, Walker was central to at least 80 percent of Charlotte plays.

Six Hornets are averaging double-figure scoring. Zeller is by far the most experienced of the five Hornets starters. Washington, Miles Bridges and Dwayne Bacon are still newbies to NBA starts, and Terry Rozier is converting from a four-season reserve role with the Celtics.

“My first six years, it was all pick-and-roll with Kemba,” Zeller said. “It’s much different, but I feel comfortable, and we’re figuring it out on the fly.”

High pick

The Hornets selected Zeller fourth overall in the 2013 draft. That makes him the second-highest Charlotte pick on this roster, behind forward Michael Kidd-Gilchrist chosen No. 2 in 2012.

Some Hornets fans have been dismissive of Zeller in the past for not having a spectacular enough game to have been a top-5 pick. What that disregards is his rare foot speed for a seven-footer and the precision with which he sets screens, then roll to the rim.

This season, he has become a 3-point threat, making 4-of-12 so far (after making only eight total 3s his first six seasons). The coaches pushed him to attempt more 3s, in part to complement so many more drivers (Bacon, Rozier, Graham and Malik Monk) than in a Kemba-centric offense.

“Bacon, Miles (Bridges), Terry — they’re more slashers than pick-and-roll: Put their heads down and get to the rim,” Zeller said. “My role, with dribble-handoffs, is to give them an opportunity to turn the corner. Then, it’s them getting to the rim, drawing the defense, and making the next pass.”

With both Walker and last season’s second-leading scorer (Jeremy Lamb, now an Indiana Pacer), gone, change was inevitable.

“Something had to change, and that starts with me,” Zeller said, whether that be starting a play as a distributor or sometimes ending it with an open jump shot or offensive putback.

Prevention

When Zeller said “something had to change,” he could have been talking about his health. He missed half of the prior two seasons’ games. It was a variety of injuries, but the chronic one was surgery on and residual pain in his left knee.

His workdays are so different now from when he was a rookie

“Before, I wouldn’t even go into the training room unless I was hurt,” Zeller said. “Now I’m on the table for an hour to an hour and a half before practice.”

Zeller swears by the care of Dr. Powell Bernhardt, the Hornets’ director of performance therapy, who introduced him to an acupuncture-like treatment called dry needling.

“It goes into the muscle: You stick a needle in it, it spasms a bit, and then it loosens right up,” Zeller said, noting he’s learned keeping his knee well is about addressing his entire leg.

“It’s ankle flexibility, it’s hip flexibility: All the (joints and muscles) around it to help support it.”

Maintenance includes a lot of cold tub and cutting back on practice time to save his body for games. All those rebounds so far is the benefit.

“I feel so healthy,” Zeller said. “My knee is good and that makes me more explosive.”

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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