Charlotte Hornets

Hornets locking down center Cody Zeller for $56 million makes sense

Few Charlotte NBA players have changed my mind more than Cody Zeller.

His first two NBA seasons, I viewed him as a tease, a 7-footer who was quick and fast for his dimensions, but someone who seemed far more about potential than production. He certainly wasn’t a "stretch 4," as Indiana coach Tom Crean promoted aggressively when Zeller entered the 2013 draft.

Nothing wrong with Crean selling the NBA on his players. But Zeller couldn’t deliver on the shooting range he purportedly possessed. He wasn’t the passer former Hornets forward Josh McRoberts was, nor the 3-point threat Marvin Williams is.

Then serendipity happened last season. Al Jefferson needed knee surgery and Charlotte Hornets coach Steve Clifford had to throw Zeller into the mix as a starting center. It turned out that’s where he always should have played.

Zeller played well enough the second half of last season that the Hornets signed him to a four-season, $56 million contract extension Monday night to preclude his becoming a restricted free agent. Two years ago, I would have thought that nuts. Now, I think it’s prudent.

Hornets general manger Rich Cho has practiced a philosophy the past few years of pre-emptively signing young players to extensions before they come off the NBA rookie scale. He did it with Kemba Walker, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Jeremy Lamb.

Signing Walker to a deal that averages $12 million a season is a coup, when you look at what some point guards have gotten since that deal. I’m not so sure the Lamb contract – three seasons at a $7 million average – will work out quite so well.

But here’s the new normal in the NBA: The massive spike in national television revenue is being baked into the salary cap. There was a striking rise last summer and there will be another in the summer of 2017.

You can either adapt or wither. So while it might be a bit shocking to the average Hornets fan that Zeller will average $14 million a season, I can see the reasoning.

The two hardest positions to fill in the NBA are point guard and center. That’s been true for a long time. The Hornets used top-10 picks on Walker and Zeller in the past six years. To protect those assets, so long as the price isn’t outrageous, is just sensible management.

Do I think Zeller will be as good at center as Walker is at point guard? No. But that’s not the point. Finding a player of Zeller’s dimensions who can beat opposing centers in a sprint to the rim counts for something.

A longtime NBA scout taught me the key to college scouting is identifying one talent or skill that separates a player by NBA measure. For Zeller, it’s speed/quickness. He loves playing with Nic Batum because in the pick-and-roll Batum always finds Zeller for a dunk. Those are easy half-court baskets, and frankly those will be hard to come by this season after the Hornets lost Jefferson, Jeremy Lin and Courtney Lee to free agency.

Another reason this makes sense: The Hornets made a smart stop-gap move at center when they signed veteran Roy Hibbert. He plays quite differently than Zeller. Hibbert’s a massive rim-protector, but not nearly as athletic.

Here’s the long-term problem: Hibbert signed a one-season, $5 million contract. That means the Hornets will have no real Bird Rights on Hibbert when he becomes a free agent in July. If he plays well, he’s good as gone.

So locking down Zeller was sensible and practical and logical.

Rick Bonnell: 704-358-5129, @rick_bonnell