Charlotte Hornets

Cody Zeller thriving as Charlotte Hornets’ fill-in center

In four starts at center, Cody Zeller, left, is averaging 13 points, 4.8 rebounds and shooting 51.5 percent from the field.
In four starts at center, Cody Zeller, left, is averaging 13 points, 4.8 rebounds and shooting 51.5 percent from the field. AP

Asked to describe the difference between power forward and center at the NBA level, Cody Zeller offered an interesting analogy.

“Chasing a (power forward) is like running a 5K because I’m always moving. But playing (against centers) is more like a bench press: more physical and maybe not as skilled,” he said. “I don’t have to chase them around the court as much, but block-outs and things like that are a lot tougher.”

Zeller played most of his first two seasons with the Charlotte Hornets at power forward. Of late, he’s been asked to fill in as the starting center and that will continue. Al Jefferson is recovering from a calf injury, and once he’s well he’ll serve a five-game suspension for violating the NBA’s anti-drug policy.

In four starts at center, Zeller is averaging 13 points and 4.8 rebounds and shooting 51.5 percent from the field. It’s the best sustained basketball he has played since the Hornets selected him fourth overall in the 2013 draft.

The tradeoff in playing 7-foot, 240-pound Zeller at center is he’s usually quicker and faster than the players he’s guarding, but giving up bulk and strength.

“The (power forward) spot to me is the toughest spot to play defensively,” said Hornets coach Steve Clifford. “You have to defend guys who both make 3s and roll (to the basket). The centers, most of them (only) roll, so your coverages are a little bit simpler. (Center) is more of an anchor spot.

“He has a quickness advantage. And he can flair (for an outside shot). As he starts hitting 19- or 20-foot shots, centers who aren’t used to closing out to him will have to do that.”

Zeller held up well Wednesday against Miami Heat center Hassan Whiteside, an emerging star who grew up in Gastonia. Zeller finished with nine points, two rebounds and two assists. Whiteside finished with six points, eight rebounds and one assist.

“My advantage is my quickness and speed. When I’m playing in the post, I can’t let them get into my body,” Zeller said. “Most of the time (opposing centers) have 40 or 50 pounds on me and I can’t let them overpower me. So most of the time I have to work my way around them – make them pay at the other end by rolling quick” to the basket.

Zeller has thrived lately rolling hard to the rim to draw feeds from Kemba Walker, Jeremy Lin and Nic Batum. He and Batum hooked up in transition Wednesday, with Batum putting a lob pass into Zeller’s hands for an uncontested dunk.

Batum, coming off his first triple-double as a Hornet (10 points, 11 rebounds and 11 assists), says he loves playing with Zeller.

“He’s very, very smart and he’s a tough guy. He knows how to move without the ball and he’s getting better with his outside shot,” Batum said. “He never cares about his numbers; he just wants to win. The way he is moving and passing, that’s all you want from a teammate and I love it.”

Perhaps the Hornet best suited to gauge Zeller’s development is the team’s starter at power forward, Marvin Williams.

“The thing about Cody, no matter what his matchup is, he’s going to give 100 percent. It’s always fun to compete with those type of guys,” Williams said.

“Cody hasn’t said one (negative) word about playing center. When Al went down he just went in and played. That’s a testament to what he is – tough as nails.”

Bonnell: 704-358-5129; Twitter: @rick_bonnell

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