The question Charlotte Hornets point guard Kemba Walker asked at shootaround Friday morning said it all:
“What’s our record without Cody?”
It’s pretty gruesome: In the 20 games backup center Cody Zeller missed last season, the Hornets went 3-17. In the 31 games Zeller has missed this season, the Hornets are 14-17.
Barring an unexpected setback, Zeller will play Friday at home against the Indiana Pacers. This will be his first game back from mid-December surgery to repair a torn meniscus in his left knee. Zeller said he’s felt no residual soreness from the two scrimmages he’s participated in since being cleared for contact. He’s ready to go.
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“I’m excited for tonight,” Zeller said. “For the last few weeks I’ve been shooting for the start of February, roughly. That was spot on.”
The plan going into the season was for Zeller to back up center Dwight Howard in what figured to be the best starter-reserve combination on the Hornets’ roster. Howard hasn’t missed a game this season, but Zeller’s injury has weakened a second unit that has often struggled.
Zeller said how many minutes he’s ready for initially is still to be determined by how he performs.
“A little bit of it will be what my conditioning is when I get back out there, and a little bit will be how my knee feels,” Zeller said. “It’s tough staying in shape with a lower-body injury because the first few weeks I couldn’t run or do much cardio at all. But it feels pretty good right now.”
In his 4-plus NBA seasons, Zeller has established a reputation as one of the NBA’s top screen-setters. He sets those screens at very precise angles for maximum effect, and his athleticism makes him a natural for rolling to the basket and finishing plays off feeds from Walker or Nic Batum.
Walker said being a great screen-setter might not be a sexy part of basketball, but it it greatly contributes to a team’s offensive efficiency.
“Cody does so much for our team. People really don’t quite understand what he does. It’s hard to put it into words,” Walker said. “I think he’ll have an impact right away tonight (by) the way he screens and creates for everyone. He’s second to none”
What’s the difference between an average NBA screen, and what Zeller provides?
“It creates so much space, especially for me. The way he doesn’t allow (defenders) to go under screens,” Walker described. “That is something coach taught him, about the angles, and he just ran with it.”