Charlotte Hornets center Cody Zeller has gone through two scrimmages to test the healing in his surgically-repaired left knee.
He won’t play Wednesday against the Atlanta Hawks, and Friday at home against the Indiana Pacers might be optimistic. But based on how he’s felt so far, Zeller appears close to being cleared to play for the first time since tearing a meniscus in the home loss to the Golden State Warriors Dec. 6.
“It feels good so far. I did a little bit of 3-on-3 in Indianapolis a couple of days ago, and I did it again today,” Zeller said, following practice Tuesday at Philips Arena. “It felt good after playing in Indiana. Hopefully, it feels good tomorrow.”
Zeller has missed 23 consecutive games since suffering that injury. The Hornets have gotten by because starting center Dwight Howard has played every game this season. But the combination of Howard and Zeller at center was arguably this team’s deepest position, and injury has so far robbed that advantage.
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The second unit continues to be a clear weakness for the Hornets, so Zeller’s return couldn’t be more welcome, particularly with another big man, starting power forward Marvin Williams, out with a left ankle sprain suffered in Monday’s road loss to the Indiana Pacers.
One of the questions when a player misses as much time as Zeller has is a loss of conditioning. How did he feel after Tuesday’s workout?
“Pretty good. The last week or so I’ve been able to crank up the workouts a little bit,” Zeller said. “A lot of running on the court (but) there’s really nothing to compare to playing in an NBA game (with the) pounding.”
Coach Steve Clifford hasn’t written off the possibility Zeller plays at home Friday, but it sounds more likely Zeller’s return would be during the four-game West Coast trip that starts Sunday against the Suns in Phoenix. Zeller said it’s up to the medical staff, not to him, to make that call.
With Zeller out, Frank Kaminsky and Johnny O’Bryant have picked up the minutes behind Howard at center. Williams missing games means Kaminsky will move into the starting lineup at power forward. O’Bryant will now play some center and some power forward, at least until Zeller is cleared to play.
Clifford said a key is making sure Zeller doesn’t risk re-injury, by being thrown back into a game too quickly.
“So that there’s a build-up” Clifford said, “so that when you put him in a game, he’s in a place physically where he won’t get hurt again.”
Bonnell: 704-358-5129; @rick_bonnell