Charlotte Hornets

Al Jefferson’s injury showed that Hornets’ Cody Zeller is an NBA center

Charlotte Hornets' Cody Zeller (40) and Milwaukee Bucks' Greg Monroe battle for a rebound during the first half of an NBA basketball game Saturday in Milwaukee.
Charlotte Hornets' Cody Zeller (40) and Milwaukee Bucks' Greg Monroe battle for a rebound during the first half of an NBA basketball game Saturday in Milwaukee. AP

I’m sorry Al Jefferson lost six weeks of his season to a torn meniscus, but I doubt the Charlotte Hornets would have discovered this season what Cody Zeller is without that happening.

Zeller is an NBA center. The way coach Steve Clifford wants a power forward with big-time 3-point range, that was not going to work out.

As I said, Zeller is an NBA center. He demonstrated that once again in the Hornets’ 115-91 road blowout of the Bucks.

The Bucks spent a lot of money to bring Greg Monroe to Milwaukee. Logically, based on experience and bulk, Monroe should be a tough cover for Zeller.

Here were the numbers in the first half when this game was decided: Monroe had four points and four rebounds on 0-of-4 shooting from the field. Zeller had four points and three rebounds and shot 2-of-4 from the field.

I know how spectacular Nic Batum was Saturday – 25 points, eight assists, seven rebounds and 5-of-9 shooting from 3-point range. But we kind of expect such things from Batum, who was handed control of the offense in June upon his trade to Charlotte from Portland.

Zeller is different. You didn’t know exactly what he was at this level and there were numerous stops and starts to his development.

Then Big Al gets hurt and Clifford figures Zeller is the best alternative to muddle through at center until Jefferson was healthy.

He certainly hasn’t muddled through, and the box score doesn’t represent how good he was Saturday. The Bucks are among the biggest, longest teams in the NBA, creating all sorts of matchup problems, particularly when Giannis Antetokounmpo moves into the backcourt.

Zeller was more than solid in every phase of defense: Clifford said he was obviously very good against Monroe one-on-one. The subtler thing was what a good team defender Zeller was in the pick-and-roll.

Bucks guard Khris Middleton is more than a jump-shooter. He and Monroe are very effective in that pick-and-roll play. Not so much Saturday.

If Zeller continues to develop – and the worst of his adjustment to both the NBA and the NBA center position are likely over – he’s going to be a worthy top-five pick, and I’m not sure I would have said that two months ago.

Some other observations about this victory:

▪ Good teams don’t let losses like Friday to the Detroit Pistons fester this time in the NBA season. Great teams don’t lose to the Pistons in the first place.

My point is the Hornets aren’t so overwhelming talent-wise that they won’t have a couple more clunkers before the regular season is over. That’s forgivable. Just don’t turn a bad night into a trend.

▪ The Chicago Bulls, Pistons and Indiana Pacers all lost Saturday. I think, barring a total collapse, the Hornets are going to finish at least sixth in the East. Having said that, the tumblers aren’t exactly clicking for them to move above sixth seed.

▪ I think Kemba Walker has looked a little tired of late, so they might not get a complete game from him in both halves for a while. That’s OK. The depth from people like Batum, Marvin Williams, Courtney Lee and Jeremy Lin can compensate.

 
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