Rookie review: Cody Zeller

  • 06/11/2014 11:23 am in

“Rookie review” is Inside the Hall’s in-depth look at the debut NBA season for Indiana’s 2013 NBA draft lottery picks, Cody Zeller and Victor Oladipo. We’ll recap the rookie season of both players as well as look to the future both from a team and individual perspective. First up: Zeller.

In a decision that was a surprise to many, the Charlotte Hornets, known as the Bobcats at the time, took Cody Zeller with the No. 4 pick in the 2013 NBA draft last June. Going into Zeller’s sophomore season at Indiana, many had pegged him as a potential No. 1 overall pick, but his stock had fallen somewhat and most projections had him going in the bottom half of the lottery.

But after a strong NBA draft combine showing and encouraging workouts, the Hornets snagged Zeller at No. 4, the first move of an offseason that would also include the signing of free agent Al Jefferson and the re-signing of veterans Gerald Henderson and Josh McRoberts.

Suddenly, the franchise had a team that could compete for a playoff spot in a depleted Eastern conference. And for Zeller, unlike many rookies drafted that high in the lottery, Charlotte’s offseason moves, particularly the acquisition of Jefferson, would allow him to be eased into the rotation surrounded by a solid core of veterans.

The numbers

– Regular season: 6.0 points, 4.3 rebounds, 1.1 assists, 0.5 steals, 0.5 blocks, 42.6 FG%, 73.0 FT%, 13.12 PER, 17.3 minutes in 82 games.
– Postseason: 2.0 points, 2.3 rebounds, 0.8 blocks, 0.5 assists, 33.3 FG%, 50.0 FT%, 13.3 minutes in 4 games.

With Jefferson and McRoberts already established in the frontcourt, Zeller was brought along slowly by first-year head coach Steve Clifford and was primarily used as Charlotte’s first big man off the bench who provided energy.

After a first half of the season that was viewed as a bit of a disappointment, Zeller began to take off after the all-star break:


As the numbers above show, Zeller’s minutes only went up incrementally, but his production increased significantly enough that he landed on the NBA All-Rookie second team. At the all-star break, Zeller was not one of the nine rookies invited to participate in the Rising Stars Challenge on all-star weekend.

“I’m just trying to bring energy to the court on offense and defense. Just trying to be an energy guy and get offensive rebounds and play good defense,” Zeller told Inside the Hall in March. “It’s fun being a role player for a change, just to be an energy guy and come in and try to make an impact from that way instead of being the mean scorer like I’ve been in college and high school.”

It’s a tough process going from college to the NBA. The game is so much different, both on and off the court it’s a big adjustment but I feel like I’ve made the adjustment pretty well. It’s definitely been a fun year for me.”

A look to the future for Zeller and the Hornets

The window for the Hornets to continue their ascent in the Eastern Conference is now as the franchise has a dominant big man in Jefferson, veterans in Henderson and McRoberts and a young nucleus that includes Kemba Walker, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Zeller.

The Hornets also have a lottery pick in this year’s draft (No. 9 overall) as well as the No. 24 and No. 45 picks, plus salary cap space of nearly $17 million, which means the franchise could be very active in free agency.

“This year we have a lot of flexibility, and I’ve been speaking to that over the last three or four years,” team owner Michael Jordan said this week. “Flexibility is very important, and we are going to use every resource to try to better the team.”

So what does all of this mean for Zeller?

While the level of expectations for him will rise going into his second NBA season, he’s still going to be a complimentary piece on a team that is coming off a playoff appearance and has one of the league’s better coaches in Clifford. That should mean the Hornets will continue to bring him along slowly and put him in spots to succeed as big men typically take longer to adjust to the NBA.

At just 21, Zeller needs to continue adding strength, add more of a face-up game and get better on defense. It’s clear that Clifford is a major advocate for Zeller’s long-term potential, but he also realizes that putting him in the best position to be successful is key to his development.

“People think by throwing them out there, they get better. I don’t agree,” Clifford said during the season. “I want a role that 1) he earns and 2) that he can play well in. If that’s 16 minutes right now, then that’s what he needs to be.”

Clifford also told The Charlotte Observer in April that learning how to defend without fouling is a major point of emphasis for Zeller moving forward.

“That’s a big thing,” he said. “He has to be able to contain the ball, contest shots, make it harder on the other guy to get to shots, and do all that without fouling.”

(Photo credit: MCT/Getty Images)

Filed to:

  • Kyl470

    A lot of people will look at Zeller’s numbers and the fact that he didn’t have a huge impact in Charlotte and say he made the wrong decision by going pro early. I can think of a couple million ($$$) reasons why he made the right decision. Either way he got a full year to learn and play against NBA competition. I expect him to make a jump in production in his second year.

  • mckillio

    Completely agree. He’ll put on noticeable weight and strength and I could even see him taking a big chunk of McRobert’s minutes in the second half of next season.

  • SCHoosier

    I believe Cody has a lot of pro-upside..maybe never an All-Star..but a solid contributor for as many years as he wants to play. I think he was unselfish in his role at IU..doing what the coaches wanted in the offense (run-outs , layups against inferior opponents and short post-ups) Other players would have insisted on improving their face the basket games, jump hooks etc to better prepare them for what they new would be an early exit to the NBA. I’m not sure those improvements wouldn’t have made IU a better team also..but that’s now water over a time-wore dam. My intention is not to start another “how Cody was used at IU” debate…doesn’t matter anymore..It’s now how April will be developed by the Hoosiers…and the future quality bigs IU an recruit..

  • Bryce Kepner

    He’ll probably only take McRobert’s minutes because McRoberts can opt out of his contract and become a free agent this offseason

  • NC Hoosier

    He’ll be the best NBA player to ever come out of the Zeller household….

  • FinEndNow

    Easily. He has the potential to be a good scoring option at the PF/C position. You could tell early in the season he was just trying to get his feet wet and that he didn’t want to step outside his role. I think as he continues he’ll start stretching his range out a bit more. He’s going to have to shoot outside. It’ll only help himself. And everyone knows he’s a great offensive player but he’s also a freak athlete too. Maybe with him in the starting lineup next year the Hornets will push the ball a bit more since they have Kemba, MKG and Zeller.

  • Outoftheloop

    Cody should go up to 25 min/game next year over the 17.3 of last year. McRoberts at 30.3 min/game last year shot 43.6% FG, 72.9% FT, and grabbed 373 rebounds. Cody’s numbers were 42.6%, 73%, and 353 in 17.3 min/game. However Josh shot 36.1% on 3’s and scored 661 pts. Cody did not try a 3 and scored 490 pts. Cody needs to cut lose offensively next year, shooting the mid-range jumpers and some 3’s when left alone, and become more aggressive offensively. He could ultimately become an All-Star, he is that good.

  • Outoftheloop

    There is no “how Cody was used at IU” debate. He came in as the #15 ranked player in his HS class, he left as the #4 NBA draft pick for all college players of all classes and all foreign players after 2 years at IU. He was well used at IU and developed superbly!

  • SCHoosier

    Didn’t read this board much his last year at IU did u?

  • Ole Man

    Why do you keep defending when no one is attacking?

  • SCHoosier

    Hornets get different things from McRoberts..great 3 pt shooting for example. .depends on who else thy bring in if Josh doesn’t resign.

  • Outoftheloop

    Because the odds for winning are so much improved! Didn’t you ever set up “mental” challenges when shooting hoops alone? I did all of the time, and won them all!

  • Outoftheloop

    You got that wrong.

  • Ole Man

    Your reply makes no sense.
    You’re simply defending Tom Crean.