How center Cody Zeller describes his role this season with the Charlotte Hornets might surprise you:
“Staying healthy,” Zeller said Friday.
Considering the number of games Zeller has missed the past four seasons (94) and the Hornets’ record in those games (35-59), Zeller’s availability could be big in how this season plays out. Point guard Kemba Walker is more talented. Small forward Nic Batum is more skilled. Power forward Marvin Williams is more savvy.
But other than two-time All-Star Walker, there is no Hornet who would be harder to replace right now than Zeller. This team has three other centers in Willy Hernangomez, Frank Kaminsky and Bismack Biyombo. None of them yet has Zeller’s mix of athleticism, experience and two-way ability, Zeller isn’t a great NBA center, but he’s the best they’ve got.
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He is also coming off a left knee injury that required mid-season surgery to repair a torn meniscus. Soreness in that knee caused him to be shut down the last couple of weeks of last season and limited his activity over the summer. He has felt fine so far this preseason, but new coach James Borrego is taking no chances.
“We managed him this summer” by limiting workouts, Borrego said. “We want him to stay healthy and fresh. The goal is to keep him on the floor for 82 games.”
Borrego says Zeller and Walker will be held out of some practices once the regular season begins. That’s something the San Antonio Spurs often did with veterans when Borrego was an assistant there. It also reflects a stepped-up focus on preventative health under the new Hornets administration of Mitch Kupchak as general manager.
By Zeller’s count, the Hornets now have five employees responsible for the players’ day-to-day physical training, where two employees had those tasks previously. Kupchak hired Joe Sharpe, who was with the Oklahoma City Thunder, to oversee that aspect of the basketball operation. This is Sharpe’s second stint with the organization.
Zeller, a former fourth overall pick out of Indiana, anticipated missing about a month of summer activity. It was closer to three months before he was fully cleared for five-on-five on the basketball court. He skipped activities he enjoys in the summer, like playing tennis or jogging, to make sure the knee had plenty of time to heal.
If that sounds like a lot of fuss over a player who wasn’t even a starter last season — Zeller backed up Dwight Howard, now with the Washington Wizards — then consider that in the games Zeller did play the past four seasons the Hornets have a winning record (118-116).
It’s safe to extrapolate the Hornets would have made at least one more, and maybe two more, playoff appearances in that span with a fully healthy Zeller, who has suffered random injuries such as a quadriceps contusion and a broken nose.
Zeller isn’t a star, but he is a connector. He sets precise picks (a lost art in basketball), he runs the floor and cuts to the rim with superior athleticism for a 7-footer, and he brings out the best from Batum as a passer in the pick-and-roll.
Entering his sixth NBA season, Zeller prides himself as being a bottom-liner; a teammate who adapts to whatever the coaches and players around him need.
“I feel like I’m productive when I’m on the court; I’m not worried about points or rebounds or anything else,” Zeller said. “Bottom line.”
After practice Friday, Zeller went through some supplemental drills with lead assistant Jay Triano. Nearly all of that session was Zeller launching 3-point shots, which certainly hasn’t been a regular part of his game previously.
In 312 games over five seasons, Zeller has gone 4-of-16 from 3-point range. He has already made two 3s in the three exhibitions, so obviously he’s in adapt mode as Borrego’s installs an offense that includes “5-out” plays, where even the center spends time well outside the lane.
“It’s the way the league is going with all 3s and layups,” Zeller described. “I shoot a couple of mid-range jumpers each game, and just taking a step or a couple steps back (outside the arc) can be huge. I’ve shot a lot of 3s in practice, but just haven’t translated it to games.
“If I could take a couple a game it could be big for our team, to at least to make the other team respect it.”
Borrego aspires to take some burden off Walker. The route is more spacing, so that defenses can’t bunch up against Walker, and attacking defenses more in the first six to eight seconds of a possession, typically before defenses are set.
“So much in the past it’s been a pick-and-roll against a set defense of five guys,” Zeller said. “Now we’re going to play faster. You’ve seen a lot of that from us this preseason and I’m a huge fans of that style.”
Borrego would be an equally big fan of keeping Zeller off the injury list