Scott Fowler

After 6 years, Hornets center and college grad Cody Zeller changes family punchline

Cody Zeller left Indiana University after only two years for the NBA. But after working online on his degree for the past four years while also playing for the Charlotte Hornets, Zeller graduated Friday with a 3.5 GPA.
Cody Zeller left Indiana University after only two years for the NBA. But after working online on his degree for the past four years while also playing for the Charlotte Hornets, Zeller graduated Friday with a 3.5 GPA. Courtesy of Indiana University

Let’s say you had a son who started college in the fall of 2011. He temporarily dropped out of school after his sophomore year. He finally graduated this past week, which meant it took him six years to earn a four-year degree.

Would you be celebrating this?

If you are the Zeller family, you certainly would be. That was the unusual path that the Charlotte Hornets’ Cody Zeller took to get his degree in business management, which he flew home to Indiana University to receive this past weekend.

“I made progress, slowly but steadily,” Zeller said Monday in a phone interview. “I did a lot of work in hotel rooms on the road.”

Zeller’s dogged work ethic on the court for the Hornets translated into his schoolwork as well. He ended up finishing with a 3.5 grade-point average. He has taken online classes from Indiana ever since the Hornets drafted him No. 4 overall in 2013, usually one class at a time but sometimes doing two during the summers – all the while working his day job as a 7-foot NBA center.

Once, Zeller wrote a paper on an 18-hour flight to China with the Hornets before a preseason game in 2015. Once he had to turn in a video for a class while in Africa for a basketball camp. He couldn’t find a strong enough Wi-Fi signal to send the video in, so in that case he had to ask the professor for an extension.

“All my professors were really cooperative the whole way,” Zeller said. “I think they knew I wasn’t trying to pull a fast one on them.”

The youngest of three basketball-playing brothers, Zeller has long been the butt of a running joke in his family.

“My two brothers, Luke and Tyler, went to business school too while they were playing,” Cody Zeller said. “But they stayed in school for four years and graduated in four (Luke from Notre Dame, Tyler from North Carolina). So they were always kidding me about being the college dropout in the family. It’s been several years of those kinds of jokes.”

His favorite college course

Zeller left Indiana after his sophomore season – his draft stock was very high at the time – and he has since played four seasons with the Hornets. In terms of salary, he has done pretty well for a college dropout. The Hornets recently signed him to a four-year, $56 million extension.

Zeller always planned to get his degree, though, and helped himself by getting ahead early in his college career. He entered his first real semester of college in August 2011 at Indiana with 22 college credit hours already complete, thanks to advanced-placement courses and a couple of other classes he took the summer before his freshman year. He took full loads, went to summer school between his freshman and sophomore years and was almost a year ahead of schedule academically when he went pro.

It still took Zeller the past four years to complete that final year of college, however. Zeller said it helped that Marvin Williams, also with the Hornets, was also working his way through college for part of that time. Williams went to Chapel Hill for only one year before entering the NBA in 2005, and he plugged away for an additional nine before receiving his degree in 2014.

I asked Zeller which of his courses he thought turned out to be the most valuable during his time at Indiana.

“Public speaking,” he said. “I took it my freshman year. I’m not a fan of public speaking at all. So I took the class and I hated it. But it was probably the most useful one that I had. It got me out of my comfort zone. We had to do impromptu speeches and critique ourselves using videotape. It was tough. But now I’m at the point where I can get up in front of a crowd and speak. It’s still not comfortable for me, but now I can do it.”

Zeller flew home to Indiana last Thursday, had dinner with family and friends (including former Indiana coach Tom Crean and his old academic advisor) on Thursday night. Zeller then went to the business school graduation ceremony Friday at Indiana’s Assembly Hall, the same venue in Bloomington, Ind., where he had once starred as a player.

“I didn’t know anybody else graduating, and you could sit wherever you wanted,” Zeller said. “So I was there solo, but a group of 3-4 guys recognized me and wanted to sit next to me. They were entertaining. I was about three-quarters of the way back. And once I stood up to go on stage, with every row I passed to get toward the front, the buzz got a little louder. By the time I got up on-stage, I got a pretty good ovation.”

Hornets 3-17 without Zeller

It was a nice moment, although Zeller would have been just fine missing it. He would prefer to be in the NBA playoffs right now, like brother Tyler, whose Boston Celtics are tied 2-2 with the Washington Wizards in a second-round NBA playoff series. Instead, Charlotte had a “disheartening” season, Zeller said, quickly adding: “But I still like our team, especially our core.”

Cody Zeller did have his best NBA season in 2016-17, although the Hornets were a disappointing 36-46. He posted career highs in points (10.3 per game) and rebounds (6.5) and has become known as one of the best screen-setters in the league.

Perhaps most indicative of how essential he was to the Hornets was this statistic: Zeller missed 20 games because of various injuries, and Charlotte was 3-17 in those games.

With a contract that goes through the 2021 season, Zeller, 24, believes he is in it for the long haul with the Hornets. He is house-shopping in Charlotte now. He is tweeting about the Carolina Panthers (he welcomed Christian McCaffrey to the Panthers with the hashtag #AthleticWhiteBoys).

Zeller has also already picked out a new puppy – a mix of a Bernese mountain dog and a miniature poodle.

Zeller doesn’t know what he is going to do with that college degree yet. “I just like having it in my back pocket,” Zeller said, “knowing I will be set to do something once my career ends.”

As for his older brothers, that running gag about Cody being a college dropout is now officially over.

“They can cross that one off the list now,” Zeller said. “But I’m sure they are going to find something new to make fun of me about.”