Since that night, Zeller has been putting his fingerprints all over games every chance he gets.
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Those fingerprints are visible when Zeller hunts down a loose ball for an extra possession, switches on to one of the hyper-quick guards in the league or rolls his way to the rim for dunks and dishes to weak side 3’s.
Many nights, it ends up being all of those. And therein lies Zeller’s best qualities, excelling in the details.
Cody Zeller’s rookie season exposed him to winning NBA basketball, sparked by Al Jefferson‘s All-NBA season that helped clinch the franchise’s first playoff berth since 2009-10.
Though Zeller logged only 17.3 minutes per game, it was enough to expose him to the NBA speed and let the Hornets know that many of the skills he showed at Indiana transferred over to the professional game.
That next season in 2014-15, the transition began as Zeller started 45 games, usually alongside Jefferson or Bismack Biyombo as a second traditional big guarding power forwards.
In 2015-16, the shift was complete, as Zeller started in 60 of 73 games played, replacing an aging Jefferson in the lineup that helped ignite the franchise’s best season since the 2001-02 season.
In increased time and opportunity with Marvin Williams now his frontcourt mate and stretching the floor, Zeller had much more room to rim run and flex his versatility defensively.
Last season finished with the Hornets falling to the Miami Heat in seven games in the first round of the Eastern Conference Playoffs, but the future looked brighter than it had since Baron Davis was flying around the Queen City.
Charlotte elected to bring back Nicolas Batum and Williams on multi-year deals and extended Zeller on a four-year, $56 million deal early this season to ensure he wouldn’t hit the restricted free agent market this summer.
“It shows a lot of confidence from the front office and coaching staff that they want me to be a part of that core group, that felt better than anything,” Zeller said.
Zeller has rewarded that vote of confidence with a career year, as the trend of his averages ticking upward have continued this season.
Yet the most impressive statistic on Zeller’s resume this season has been his plus-minus numbers. Zeller mentioned coach Steve Clifford really stresses that to him, adding “some of that has to do with that I’m playing with Kemba and Nic a lot, so some of that is skewed a little bit.”
Nonetheless, the raw numbers are incredible for a center that would often be mistaken for his brother (and North Carolina alum) Tyler Zeller in the Tar Heel State when he first entered the league.
Through the All-Star Break, the Hornets are plus-175 with Zeller on the court in a mere 39 games, and minus-161 with him off the court.
To put that in perspective, Charlotte is plus-8.2 per 100 possessions with Zeller on the floor, according to NBA Stats. The next closest Hornet is Kemba Walker at plus-3.6.
Those numbers are fleshed out even more in wins and losses. The Hornets are 22-17 with Zeller in uniform this season, and 2-15 without.
So how can a player with a career 7.9 points per game average provide so much of a difference for an NBA team? By executing the details.
Last season, the NBA experimented with a “hustle” category of statistics, and committed to it fully for this season. In that section, Zeller is revealed to be a star, a nook that coaches love to dig into that helps bare out Zeller’s dense footprint on a game.
Zeller prides himself on his screen setting, one of his main jobs on the offensive end that results in recording 5.4 screen assists per game, good for fourth in the NBA.
He also ranks third on the team in both deflections and loose ball recovered per game and first in 2-point contests per night, courtesy of NBA Stats.
I was curious to see how Cody viewed himself, and how he helped determine his performance on a nightly basis if it wasn’t by the traditional box score staples of points, rebounds and assists.
“I look at a lot of stats other people don’t, so if Nic has a big night of assists that means I’m setting good screens, I’m finishing his passes,” Zeller said. “I actually follow some of the other guys’ stats as well to indicate how I’m playing.”
That Zeller uses teammates’ stats as a barometer for his own play backs up his actions on the court with the words of a team-first attitude.
That brought up the recurring theme of details, something Zeller thought the Hornets got away from the last 15 or 20 games before the All-Star break when I asked what the biggest difference has been from last season to this season.
“A big part of our identity is getting stops on the defensive end, no turnovers, a lot of things that it takes to win,” Zeller said. “We started off well the first 20-25 games, but since then some of that has slipped.”
That slippage has coincided with Zeller’s longest absence from the lineup this season due to a quadricep contusion with the Hornets sporting a 5-17 record in 2017, including 2-12 without Zeller in the lineup.
When asked how the quad was feeling since the All-Star Break, Zeller responded:
“It’s feeling a little bit better, it’s getting better each day, progress is all you could ask for.”
Mar 26, 2016; Milwaukee, WI, USA; Milwaukee Bucks center Greg Monroe (15) dribbles the ball as Charlotte Hornets center Cody Zeller (40) defends during the second quarter at BMO Harris Bradley Center. Mandatory Credit: Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports
Zeller has also benefited off of the increased emphasis on spacing and versatility amongst frontcourt players. His lateral quickness is an asset, particularly on the defensive end, though he has yet to add the 3-pointer to his arsenal.
I asked Cody if that’s a part of his game he wanted to develop, and how it’d fit with Charlotte becoming one of the most proficient 3-point shooting teams in the association.
“Eventually I think it could be good for me, but right now what our team needs is for me to be rolling hard to the rim,” Zeller said. “But I think throughout the game there’s times where I can space the corner or get a trail 3 or whatever it is just to mix it up.”
Charlotte Becomes Home
In addition to having a profound presence on the court, Zeller’s fingerprints are all around Charlotte where they’re most needed. Cody has hosted a sock drive each year of his tenure in Buzz City, helping out many of those in need.
“I think it’s a part of my responsibility, it puts things into perspective really well for me,” Zeller said. “Sometimes I get worked up because of my quad injury or if I’m not playing well but really in the big scheme of things in life my worries are so small.”
Zeller also does a lot of work with Hemby Health Childrens Hospital in Charlotte, including dressing up as a minion on one particular visit.
“To get out of yourself and into helping other people brightens my mood, and I know it helps them,” Zeller said. After pausing, he continued, “I’ve always been very blessed that I’ve been able to help others and it’s a big responsibility of mine to be able to do that.”
I couldn’t resist the urge to ask him if anything has come of that since the article was published, and he responded by laughing and saying, “he didn’t really say anything about it, but everyone thought that was a pretty funny story.”
As a 23-year-old fresh out of college, I overprepared for the interview by running through every possible scenario in my head beforehand and having pages of questions.
But what I feared could divebomb into a strict Q&A turned into a conversation. And the times that Cody became most animated were in talking about helping others or his teammates and the Hornets organization.
Through the time I spent talking with Cody, I found his words aligned with everything that he shows on the court, in his writing and his life: selflessness and taking pride in the details.
Whether that’s shown in continuing to improve despite signing a new extension, ensuring that he spends time with every patient possible at Hemby Health Childrens Hospital, or agonizing over his routine as a rookie in the NBA, Cody doesn’t take things for granted.