Glance at a box score from Friday’s game between the Charlotte Hornets and Indiana Pacers, and Cody Zeller’s statline probably isn’t the one that stands out. More likely, it’s Kemba Walker’s team-leading 41 for the Hornets or Victor Oladipo’s 35 for the Pacers that catches your eye.
That’s fair, but make no mistake: That Zeller has a stat line again – and that it came in a 133-126 win – is arguably the night’s biggest takeaway.
And for Hornets fans, it’s a good one.
Zeller finished the game with 5 points, 3 rebounds and a team-best plus-minus of 11 in 16 minutes of game time Friday night (which squares with coach Steve Clifford’s pregame prediction that Zeller would play about seven minutes a half). Now, those numbers aren’t near the top end of what Zeller is capable of. But considering he’s missed the last 21 games with a torn left meniscus, it’s impressive that he was able to produce anything of real substance – even if Zeller won’t give himself too much credit.
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“A little of the timing is off with some of the guys, but that’s kind of to be expected being out that long,” Zeller said. “Felt a little rusty out there, but I felt good.”
Coming into this season, the Hornets’ biggest strength concerning depth was at center. Future Hall of Famer Dwight Howard, who was acquired via an offseason trade with the Atlanta Hawks, would start, and last season’s starter in Zeller would come off the bench. Of every position on this team, center would surely see the least drop-off from the first to second units. After all, Zeller’s screen-setting ability and effective shooting percentage make him a natural fit with the Hornets’ reserves who at times struggle to score.
Then when Zeller went down at home against the Golden State Warriors on Dec. 6, so too did the team’s plan.
But now with Zeller back in the fold, there should be much better cohesion on the second unit, something that has consistently plagued this group.
“He does those things that you don’t always see on the stats sheet,” Jeremy Lamb said of Zeller’s importance to the second unit. “He plays great defense, he alters shots, he sets great screens. So even though the stats may not say that, he has a huge impact.”
That was clear even in limited minutes Friday. Zeller’s rolls to the basket gave his teammates passing options, and he finished one such play with an and-one dunk. There were other times he made those same rolls and didn’t receive a pass, but his off-ball movement still opened up space for the rest of the offense.
“He creates so much for his teammates with his screen games, his rolling,” Clifford said. “You execute whenever he’s on the court ... it’s just good to have him out there.”
The question now is: Can Zeller’s return realistically ignite a Hornets playoff push?
To say that he alone would be able to do so is foolish – perhaps if someone of Walker’s caliber were returning, but this isn’t the case. More likely, any Hornets playoff push will start with the three people Zeller helps most: Walker, Howard, and Nic Batum (who had 31 on Friday).
By creating space for Walker and Batum, Zeller lets the Hornets’ two most dynamic offensive players play more freely and creatively. There’s more room to dribble, to pull up, and to pass when coming off a Zeller screen. They’ll both have to take advantage of that space and continue playing at a high level for the postseason to seem even a little realistic (considering the Hornets are currently 3½ games out of the eighth seed in the East).
As for Howard, Zeller’s return means Howard won’t have to play as many minutes as he has been the past two months. That should keep Howard fresher for later in games, allowing him to more easily wear down opponents with his physicality.
In those senses, Zeller’s return really is key for a playoff push.
“I kind of got my second wind in the second half, felt a little bit better,” Zeller said. “Until you get out there and start playing, I wasn’t too sure how good of shape I was in, but felt pretty comfortable.”
Clifford said he expects that in a week, Zeller will, “look a lot more like himself.” That doesn’t mean he’ll start averaging 15 and 10, but it does mean his timing with Walker, Batum, and the second unit will improve. As it does, everyone’s games will be elevated collectively.
And if that’s the case – and Friday’s win over playoff-bound Indiana was a taste – then maybe Zeller’s return can be just the spark these Hornets need to make a run at the postseason.