Dwight Howard dislikes playing against Cody Zeller. Zeller dislikes playing against Howard.
So it might work out better that they’re teammates. Zeller’s first reaction, when he heard the Charlotte Hornets traded for Howard in June: “Now I don’t have to play him four times a season.”
Howard, an eight-time All-Star, was the biggest acquisition of the Hornets’ off-season. Coach Steve Clifford said right after the trade he intends to start Howard at center. Zeller, entering his fifth season with the Hornets, could view that as a demotion. Instead, he sees opportunity.
“We’re two different styles of players: He’s more physical, a shot-blocker and rim protector. I’m all over the place, working the pick-and-rolls, creating offense for the perimeter” players, Zeller said in a Tuesday interview with the Observer. “I think we’re very different players, so it adds another layer to our team.”
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Zeller started 118 of the Hornets’ 164 games the past two seasons. In an NBA full of prideful athletes, it wouldn’t be a big surprise if Zeller, the fourth overall pick in the 2013 draft, was unhappy about playing off the bench.
He sees it differently, that he and Howard can form a tag team of sorts, and that Zeller can improve a second unit that was a clear Hornets weakness last season. Also, this could save some wear-and-tear on his body.
Zeller missed 29 games over the past two seasons. The Hornets’ record in the 20 games he missed in 2016-17 was 3-17.
“I got banged up so much, playing so many minutes,” said Zeller, who has gained about 10 pounds in the off-season to 250.
“A lot of times, I’m outsized by 40 or 50 pounds. I’m used to it -- I can do it for games – but over four games in five nights or back-to-backs, my body starts to wear down.”
Zeller says teammates have kidded him and Howard about their history. Last November, Howard was ejected from a game in Charlotte for elbowing Zeller in the face.
“We’re both so competitive, which is why we got under each other’s skin,” Zeller said. “I’m trying to be physical with him, while running around the court, and he’s trying to do the same with me. We’re contrasting styles, and neither one of us is going to give in.”
Turns out they get along fine now on the same roster. Zeller says in the week or so Howard has been in Charlotte, he’s offered lots of advice - specific to Zeller, but also in general. Clifford, who coached Howard as an assistant with the Orlando Magic and Los Angeles Lakers, says Howard’s experience makes him a savvy organizer, particularly on defense.
“There is a lot to learn from him and he’s very willing to teach,” Zeller said. “He’s pulling people aside, stopping (scrimmages) to make a point.
“He’s still a double-double machine. Going one-on-one with him in the post, it’s tough even getting a shot off, much less score on him. He covers up for so many mistakes. He can not only cover his man, but if somebody gets beaten backdoor, or in a pick-and-roll, he can make up for it.”
There might be no area where the Hornets were more deficient last season than the second unit. The starters, when they were all healthy, were solid. The bench was fragile, as Clifford noted several times following the season.
Drafting wing players Malik Monk and Dwayne Bacon will eventually help, and veteran Jeremy Lamb had a strong off-season. The biggest difference, if the bench is to improve, should be Zeller.
“Cody has had a great summer. He’s always been a great worker. He’s made steady progress every year,” said Clifford, who sees a carryover in the way Howard and Zeller play offensively.
“Cody is so good because of his screening and his rolling, as is Dwight. We don’t have to change a lot that way. They play offensively in a very similar manner.”
Setting precise screens has become a big strength for Zeller. He says the importance of that came from his high school coach, who preached the best way to get an open shot is to go set a screen.
As far as starting, it’s not be as important as who finishes close games. Remember, Howard is a career .566 foul-shooter (compared to Zeller’s .734), so playing Howard can be problematic in the fourth quarter.
“He’s going to be a major, major part of things,” Clifford said of Zeller.
“If we’re going to have an exceptional year, then both of those guys will play well.”