Bobcats draft primer: Why and why not Zeller, Len?

What will the Bobcats do with the No. 4 overall pick in next month’s NBA draft? This is the fourth of a five-part series looking at why Charlotte should and why it shouldn’t take some of the top prospects available:

Cody Zeller, PF, Indiana, Soph.
2012-13 stats: 16.5 points, 8.1 rebounds

Why Zeller?

From a pure fit perspective, Cody Zeller might be better for the Bobcats than any player in this class. His scoring ability complements Bismack Biyombo’s game and his face-up ability would make an ideal pick-and-roll candidate for Kemba Walker. Zeller’s biggest strength is the Bobcats’ biggest weakness: interior scoring. 

It doesn’t hurt that Zeller is the best running big man in this draft and would give Kemba Walker and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist a coordinated big to fill the lanes on fast breaks.

But, most importantly, Zeller is skilled. I don’t think this specific draft pick is one the Bobcats can use on a developmental project. They need someone who can score immediately and Zeller possesses that kind of skill set. He’s already more skilled than approximately 90 percent of the power forwards in the league: an excellent face-up game and a wealth of back-to-the-basket moves and counter moves should allow him to score at the NBA level immediately.

Couple those factors with an excellent NBA Combine performance and Zeller’s stock has risen since a disappointing NCAA Tournament. 

The most surprising number of the whole combine might have been Zeller’s 35 1/2-inch standing vertical jump, which was tops in attendance, and highest over the last decade for players 6-foot-9 and above. Even more importantly, rumors had circulated that the 6-foot-11 Zeller had a wingspan of just 6-foot-9, more like a shooting guard or small forward, but his wingspan measured out at 6-foot-11 at the Combine as well. Those measurements paired with his running ability have experts wondering if perhaps Zeller’s physical abilities haven’t been drastically undervalued.

In the end, we’re talking about a player who shot 62 percent from the field in the Big Ten as a true freshman. His stats didn’t make much of a jump as a sophomore but this was the odds on favorite to be the No. 1 overall pick when he returned for his second season in Bloomington. The characteristics that fueled that reputation remain, and Zeller likely remains in heavy contention here for Charlotte as a result.

Why not Zeller?

So many qualities about Zeller scream No. 1 pick overall potential. Polished post scorers that can produce with their backs to the basket are rare these days. Zeller fits that mold. 

In a way, Zeller is the antithesis of the big men that have been the beneficiaries of recent top-10 selections: valued as a nearly-finished product; high motor; utilizes positional awareness over length defensively; production outshines his potential. 

There are no questions of what he could become as his offensive skill sets develops, unlike, say, Nerlens Noel or Alex Len. There are no questions of how an inconsistent motor translates to the pros (See: Anthony Bennett). 

What you see is what you get with Zeller.

And that’s part of the problem. He’s not an elite rebounder and likely never will be at the NBA level, not with that wingspan and frame. It’s those two factors that lead to the biggest question with Zeller: Will he become a liability on the glass and on the defensive end? It’s physical for post players in the NBA and 6-foot-11 wingspans do not hide soft.

If you draft Zeller, the hope is that he’ll continue to add weight and be able to better hold position to rebound. 

But can a team that’s weak on the backboards and one of the worst in the NBA defensively afford to draft a player whose biggest two weaknesses lie in the areas they most need help? And if they do decide to select a scoring power forward, can they afford to draft Zeller when Anthony Bennett will likely provide a higher upside?

Eastern Conference Scout’s Take

Offensively, I love Zeller. I think he does everything you want in a big guy. He has a lot of moves in the post, extended range with the jump hook, can shoot and will face you up and go right or left. There’s a lot of David Lee in his game offensively. 

I think he’s going to have major problems on the defensive end though. But he should be a good offensive player for a long time. That’s why I think he and Trey Burke are the safest two picks in this draft.

Alex Len, C, Maryland, Soph.
2012-13 stats: 11.9 points, 7.8 rebounds, 2.1 blocks

Why Len?

Upside and potential are the buzz words with Len and any team without a franchise center is constantly on the hunt. Simply put: You can’t teach 7-foot-1 with mobility. Len possesses both. 

The possibility of Len’s production ever aligning with his talent is too salivating for the Bobcats not to give him a long, hard look here. For the past 10 years the Bobcats have been in search of a staple in the middle and Len could be just that.

The wildcard here is what the Bobcats’ opinion of Bismack Biyombo is after two years in the organization. They continued to play him for extended minutes this year, which his play never really warranted, but he’s only 20 years old and at times he’s proven to be a solid rim protector. However, there has been very little progression in his offensive game or rebounding instincts, despite his appetite for improvement. Therefore, you have to think center is certainly on the board.

Len would be an immediate upgrade here. He possesses better instincts, a longer frame and a more advanced offensive game than Biyombo.

Len doesn’t have a ton of exposure to the game and his physical development and impact on the game was much higher as a sophomore than a freshman. If that rate of progression continues, the sky is the limit. Many draft experts believe his potential is even higher than that of Nerlens Noel; he could ultimately end up the best player among this bunch.

There’s no denying that the Bobcats need immediate offensive help, but Len fits immediately on defense and on the glass and would allow Biyombo to move back to the bench where he could serve as an energetic backup. At some point, one of these boom-or-bust prospects has to pan out for the Bobcats, right?

Why not Len?

Concerning his physical tools, I get it. Few amateur centers feature advanced post games these days, so in an NBA era where Nene Hilario is worth $13 million a year, why not take a guy like Len in an underwhelming draft class?

That’s the problem, though: the Bobcats need production, not potential. They need scorers — and scorers eat at any table. Len wasn’t a scorer in college and likely never will be a significant one at the NBA level. He’s raw; Charlotte needs polished. 

Len is solid on the boards but could do more. Cody Zeller, for example, averaged more rebounds per game than Len.

And at what point do you value production? At what point do feel for the game and motor outweigh physical tools? Some things can be taught, but some require an innate feel and can never be developed. That’s the juggle with Len: Can the footwork be taught? Can the jumper, which is pretty nice form-wise, become more consistent? Can the post moves and counters be developed?

I’ve heard the excuses for Len: Maryland didn’t know how to use him and he didn’t have a true point guard to create for him. Part of that is true — professional guard play will help him tremendously — but he rarely dominates, routinely gets pushed too far from the basket and doesn’t look particularly fluid with his movement when he receives the ball in the post. I don’t see the obvious differences between him and Mason Plumlee and Jeff Withey, for example, and that’s a problem for a No. 4 pick. 

Alex Len could become one of the best centers in the league or a career role player that falls in the lore of past Bobcats draft failures. The risk is quite high for a team that needs production now.

Eastern Conference Scout’s Take

He’s a monster physically and you saw flashes of the light coming on at times this season. He’s just really inconsistent. His footwork’s got to improve offensively and he doesn’t show particularly good instincts. He’s really got to quit bringing the ball down every chance he gets, too. There’s just a lot to learn for him and the learning curve will be steep early. 

He’s the type of guy you’d love to get in the back end of the lottery but makes you incredibly nervous in the top five. But he’s 7-foot-1, so you know someone will reach for him.