Scott Fowler

Hornets’ Cody Zeller looks so much more at home playing center

Charlotte Hornets center Cody Zeller, right, scrambles for a loose ball in the Hornets’ 107-84 win Wednesday night against Atlanta. Zeller led the Hornets with 19 points and 10 rebounds.
Charlotte Hornets center Cody Zeller, right, scrambles for a loose ball in the Hornets’ 107-84 win Wednesday night against Atlanta. Zeller led the Hornets with 19 points and 10 rebounds. rlahser@charlotteobserver.com

Cody Zeller worked so hard over the summer, trying to become the "stretch four" the Charlotte Hornets wanted.

The Hornets hoped Zeller could play power forward and suddenly turn himself into a viable 3-point shooter, like so many big men in the NBA these days.

That experiment has been abust. Zeller has made the same number of NBA 3-pointers this season that you have. But through an odd series of circumstances, he is playing the best basketball of his three-year NBA career over the past few weeks -- as a center.

It turns out center is Zeller's natural position. Asking him to consistently make 3-pointers in a real NBA game is like asking me to stop singing really loud in the car and embarrassing my kids. It's just not going to happen.

Zeller has made one 3-pointer in his entire NBA career, and he's 0-for-9 from beyond the arc this season.

Cody Zeller has had two double-doubles this season -- both in the past four games.

But roll to the basket? Out-quick the other team's hulking big man? Race down the floor and throw himself into the crowd chasing a loose ball with no apparent regard for his body?

Zeller can do all of that. As for playing center the past few weeks, he said: "A lot of times I'm undersized on the defensive end. But I have a quickness advantage on the other end. So I try to take the advantage I have and exploit it a little bit."

Only in the NBA could a man who is 7-foot and 240 pounds describe himself as "undersized" and have every reporter around him nod knowingly.

But I think in the new NBA -- where being big for the sake of being big is valued less and versatility is valued more -- Zeller can now make a decent case to land the role as the Hornets' center of the future.

Zeller had 19 points and 10 rebounds in Charlotte's 23-point win over Atlanta Wednesday night, which broke a seven-game losing streak for the Hornets. Those sorts of numbers are no longer a real anomaly for him, either. Zeller has averaged 12 points and 8.5 rebounds over the past 10 games, and that increased production lines up with center Al Jefferson's latest injury.

Jefferson has done a lot of great work in Charlotte, but this year has been his worst. It will surely be his last year for the Hornets, too.

I can't see any way that the Hornets re-sign Jefferson, an 11-year veteran whose contract is about to expire. He has suffered calf and knee injuries this season and also was suspended by the NBA for five games for a positive drug test.

Because of injuries and the suspension, Jefferson has missed half of the 38 games the Hornets (18-20) have played. After arthroscopic surgery to repair a tear in the lateral meniscus of his right knee in late December, "Big Al" will be back in mid-February at the earliest.

Meantime, two new Hornets big men -- rookie Frank Kaminsky and veteran Spencer Hawes -- have shown they can bury the occasional 3-pointer (each has more than 20 treys this season).

"With the way Spencer has come along and Frank has played, and then losing Al as well, that's changed our whole team," said Zeller, who the Hornets took with the fourth overall pick in the 2013 draft. "In order to collapse the defense, someone has to roll and get to the rim and I've taken it on myself to do that."

The Hornets play three games in four days starting Friday at New Orleans, with home games following Saturday (Milwaukee) and Monday (Utah).

Defense remains Zeller's biggest issue.

"When he's playing center, he gets outweighed by 25-30 pounds four nights a week," teammate Marvin Williams said of Zeller. "I have seen him just take a beating the last couple of years. That sort of thing wears you down, but no one can ever take him out. I love Cody and he is a tough, tough kid."

Before the Atlanta win, the Hornets had just finished a disappointing West Coast road trip where they went 0-4. Zeller, though, was the silver lining.

"On the West Coast trip he was our most consistent player," Hornets coach Steve Clifford said. "If you notice on defense, he's like Marvin Williams now. An organizer. Assertive. And he's finding more and more ways to use his quickness to get to the basket, which is obviously his biggest advantage."

Nic Batum's presence in the lineup helps everyone, but Zeller constantly benefits from Batum's ingenious passes.

"I have a natural chemistry with him," Batum said, "and I don't know how to explain it. When I come off a screen, I know where Cody is going to be. He's gotten a lot better this year. He's just got to get better on his shot. If he can get that weapon, he's going to be terrific."

I doubt that outside shooting will ever be much of a weapon for Zeller. It's just not his thing. But the Hornets have a lot of other guys who can do that. If he can sustain his current level of play at center, he's going to be just fine.

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