It was one game … in the preseason ... a half a world away from Charlotte.
Maybe what Charlotte Hornets power forward Cody Zeller did Sunday in a 106-94 victory over the Los Angeles Clippers won’t count for much down the road. Or maybe, as coach Steve Clifford indicated, we got a glimpse of why the Hornets chose Zeller fourth overall in the 2013 draft.
Zeller always had the measurables – 7-foot height, plus length and quickness – that get a player into the first round. But his first two seasons were more a tease than validation he belonged among the top five players in that draft.
Sunday he finished with 16 points and 10 rebounds off the bench. He was assertive in his decisions and movements. And he made a 3-pointer, which he did once over 144 regular-season games those first two seasons.
It grabbed Clifford’s attention.
“Cody is really playing at another level this preseason,” Clifford said. “I think he’s taken a step defensively. Like Marvin (Williams) he organizes us on the floor all the time. Offensively he’s making a lot more plays – not just shooting, but when there are things he can make off the dribble his decision-making is really a big benefit.”
Clifford isn’t prone to faux compliments. Perhaps the thing players like most about his approach is you always know where you stand with him. If you’re messing up, it won’t come as a surprise. If you’re progressing, you’ll hear that, too.
Over his first two NBA seasons Zeller averaged 6.7 points and five rebounds a game – decent productivity, but short of impactful. He started 45 of 82 games last season and seemed to have found a role until a shoulder injury cost him the last 19 games of the season and required surgery to repair.
Clifford has abundant options at power forward this preseason. Williams, a 10-year NBA veteran, showed up for training camp in such exemplary shape that he had a jump on the other candidates. Rookie Frank Kaminsky showed enough skill at Orlando summer league that Clifford is predisposed to find ways to get him on the floor.
Zeller seemed sandwiched between the young and the old. It was time to make something happen or perhaps be marginalized.
Sunday he made something happen.
“I just feel more comfortable,” Zeller said. “There are a lot more options in our offense right now. Jeremy (Lin) and I are finding each other and everyone is finding their groove.”
Then Zeller threw a compliment back at Clifford.
“It helps to have the same coach all three years, which is kind of unusual in the NBA especially when you’re young,” Zeller said. “I’ve heard the same things for a while now.”
High among those things: It’s imperative Zeller develop shooting range out to the NBA 3-point line.
“It would change everything,” Clifford said. “Then they would have to close to him (defensively). He has a quick first step and obviously he’d create space for everybody else.”
Zeller was promoted as a 3-point threat coming out of Indiana. It’s typical for players and their college coaches to make the argument they have NBA-applicable skills they simply weren’t asked to display at the prior level of basketball.
Zeller could make shots in drills. But he attempted only two NBA 3s collectively those first two seasons. Clifford, like most NBA coaches, is looking to play a 1-in/4-out style where center Al Jefferson is the post-up scorer surrounded by four long-range shooters.
Williams took 265 3-pointers last season, making a solid 36 percent, a stark contrast to Zeller’s reluctance to launch a shot from outside the arc.
So once his shoulder healed over the summer, Zeller put in work with Hornets shooting coach Bruce Kruetzer to fill the gap in his game.
“I still have to gain respect (as a shooter) over time; it won’t happen over two games,” Zeller said. “I’ve got to keep letting it fly.”
Keep doing that and the tease of the past two seasons morphs into a foundation for the next five.