This could be a real turf war, something capable of tearing down what the Charlotte Hornets look to accomplish these last 28 games.
Instead, it’s the makings of a buddy movie: Al Jefferson, the 12th-season veteran center, not just welcoming Cody Zeller’s recent growth at the same position, but contributing to it.
It’s been a lousy season for Jefferson between a calf strain, a five-game NBA suspension for marijuana use and knee surgery to repair a torn meniscus. That surgery sidelined him six weeks until Friday, when he returned to play in a road victory over the Milwaukee Bucks.
Jefferson didn’t get his starting spot back, playing 23 minutes off the bench to score six points and grab five rebounds. Zeller had one of his best games to date, with a career-high 23 points and nine rebounds.
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It’s been serendipity how Jefferson’s knee injury pushed Zeller from backup power forward to starting center. Turns out he’s much better suited to that position after trying for 2 ½ seasons to be a power forward.
Zeller wasn’t bad as a power forward, but he doesn’t have the shooting range coach Steve Clifford prefers to stretch opposing defenses. Marvin Williams and Frank Kaminsky’s skill sets are better fits at that position.
So Zeller adapted back to the center spot he played in college at Indiana. Who did he lean on to make this transition?
"Big Al has been great, helping me through this whole process – giving me scouting reports on centers I hadn’t guarded before," Zeller said. "I think that’s why it’s going to work so well. Me and Al, Marvin and Frank, we all just want what is best for the team. This could be a problem if we weren’t all mature about it. We all just want to win."
This is true. Jefferson is months away from his contract expiring. But I believe he’s less concerned about his next gig than finishing this one. Jefferson has never been an All-Star and has appeared in the playoffs only three times.
The All-Star dream might be over, but at 31 he can still contribute to a team chasing the postseason. Just in a different role.
"This is not the same team of two years ago or last year when the ball had to go through me every time," Jefferson said. "This is actually a lot better for me, to have shooters around me, playing for each other. The number of 3-point shots we get up – that’s playoff basketball."
The contrast between Jefferson and Zeller at center is intriguing. Jefferson is all cunning and ball fakes. He often jokes he had an old man’s game long before he reached old-man mileage.
Zeller is about the raw athleticism of youth.
"A lot of guys aren’t used to (guarding) a 7-footer who is very athletic and can put the ball on the floor and get to the rim. I think the game is finally slowing down for him, so that he can do the things he does well," Jefferson said.
"You don’t find too many 7-footers who are that athletic – who can move like a guard or a wing player. To me he’s still got room to grow."
No one understands that better than Zeller.
"I become more valuable based on the number of guys I can guard. Being thrown into the fire the last few weeks has been good," Zeller said. “And I can still guard (power forwards) and get offensive rebounds. I just try to make myself valuable in any way I can."