Bobcats take versatile big man Zeller with No. 4 pick

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Everything was set up perfectly for the Charlotte Bobcats in the NBA Draft Thursday night. Finally.

Nerlens Noel was still available. Ben McLemore and Alex Len were, too. This was the pick Charlotte couldn’t lose with or be questioned about. The two most talented players on the board were still there at No. 4 and all annoyances of falling to No. 4 in the lottery were out the window. Either Noel or McLemore was going to walk across the Barclays Arena stage, put on a Bobcats hat, shake hands with NBA commissioner David Stern and the Bobcats would finally have a franchise player to build around.

Only that didn’t happen. In a draft where Anthony Bennett went No. 1, the Bobcats made one of the most surprising picks of the night and turned the mood at their draft-night party from jubilation to frustration and apathy. Some fans threw their hats. Other fans booed or shook their heads in utter disbelief. Many quickly exited the arena.

That’s the type of risk the Bobcats brass took in selecting Cody Zeller.

This pick might have received the benefit of the doubt in other cities. Not Charlotte. Not when memories of Adam Morrison’s mustache, Sean May’s knees and Bismack Biyombo’s offensive game are still fresh in the minds of fans.

Regardless of fans’ feelings or mock drafts though, president Rod Higgins and general manager Rich Cho feel like they got the No. 1 player on the board in Zeller.

“I wouldn’t necessarily look at [mock drafts] as the gospel. When I was with OKC, nobody expected Russell Westbrook to go No. 4,” Cho said. “So when you’re looking to build your team you have to see who the best player you think is going to be for your team and we’re thrilled to have Cody. He might not have been real high on the mock drafts that you’re reading, but people forget he was the No. 1 pick in the preseason. So he’s a versatile big. He’s 7 foot. He can play inside and he can play outside. I think he’s going to be really good for Coach [Steve] Clifford’s systems.”

It’s wild to think that in one pick the Bobcats might have taken the safest pick and the riskiest pick on their board all in one swoop. Safe in the sense that he’s not your boom or bust prospect. Risky in that he went over McLemore and Noel, who have more potential than anyone else in this draft.

Cho and Higgins both said injuries played no part in their decision and admitted they were really close to trading the pick and found a couple enticing offers but couldn’t pull the trigger.  

“Oh yeah, oh yeah, we came close on a few different transactions, but that’s part of draft night,” Higgins said.

Ironically, though, the pick many felt was a stretch was just too much to risk moving back and losing.

“We had some interest in doing some other deals, but at the end of the day we didn’t feel comfortable moving back and losing Cody either. Our goal was to get Cody and we’re happy to have him.”

There are certainly questions surrounding Zeller’s game. Does he have an All-Star ceiling? Can he defend at this level? But in this draft, everyone had major holes. That’s always the case, but this year even more than normal. I asked one Bobcats fan in a text the other day who he wanted his team to pick and his response basically sums up this class: “In all honesty, everyone scares me.” 

That’s why maybe it’s good they didn’t swing for the fences and instead got the safe guy. Clifford loves the stretch-four and they needed that to pair with Biyombo in the paint. With Kemba Walker and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, this is going to be a running team and Zeller fits that perfectly. 

“I think we targeted him and we felt very comfortable with him,” Higgins said. “It’s interesting when you make the pick and all of the congratulatory text messages, phone calls, I found one really special when Kemba hit me on the text and was saying how happy and ecstatic he was about us drafting Cody. That sends messages throughout our organization, throughout our scouting staff that we made a good pick.”

The pick even came as a surprise to Zeller. He knew he had an excellent workout in Charlotte and knew they were interested in him, but his older brother Tyler had told him his agent would give him notice 30 seconds to a minute before the selection and he hadn’t gotten that. He just figured they’d passed and he’d have to wait a couple more picks. Only his agent Sam Goldfeder was messing with him the same way Zeller’s joked with him throughout the process. The surprise announcement of his name by Stern caught him by surprise but placed him in a situation where he’ll likely start immediately.

“I think I’ll come in with a great work ethic, which will help a team because I’m going to come in and work the same whether it’s day before a game, day of a game, day after a game,” Zeller said. “I know I have a lot to learn as a rookie but I’m going to come in with an open mind and be ready to learn from day one.” 

The selection of Zeller also provides an interesting twist to Charlotte’s free-agency plans. They’ll want to bring Zeller along quickly and the only way to do that is to give him floor time. The summer’s free agent class is probably the strongest at the power forward position and now the Bobcats will likely divert those resources to the center and shooting guard position.

Does not drafting a shooting guard guarantee Gerald Henderson will be back in Charlotte next season or ensure some other shooting guard like J.J. Redick or J.R. Smith will get a big-time offer from the Bobcats? It’s clear the Bobcats need shooting. Zeller will stretch the defense and open up driving lanes, but they already had two stretch-fours in Josh McRoberts and Byron Mullens, who both look far more expendable in free agency than they did yesterday.

“I think part of our free-agency plans were dependent on what we got in the draft, so we probably won’t have as much of a need at the four spot, but we’ll always look to improve the team,” Cho said. “But I think Cody’s a great piece to have going forward.”

Thursday night assured that Higgins and Cho’s futures will be tied to Zeller. Talent evaluators have signature picks that come to define their reputations for the good or bad. Oklahoma City general manager Sam Presti earned his as one of the best in the league with the Russell Westbrook and James Harden selections. Billy Knight earned his reputation and exit from Atlanta by selecting Marvin Williams over Chris Paul and Deron Williams. Cho’s will come with Kidd-Gilchrist over Bradley Beal a season ago and now Zeller over Noel and McLemore.

Right now he seems to feel great about that. For Charlotte’s sake, he better still feel that way in a couple of years.