A little over a week ago, Charlotte Bobcats coach Steve Clifford decided asking rookie Cody Zeller to do less might result in him producing more.
Clifford streamlined Zeller’s responsibilities, focusing on the things he does best – jump shots from just above the key and pick-and-rolls. The results, while less than spectacular, are encouraging:
Zeller’s only two times reaching double figures scoring were in the past five games. He’s had five or more rebounds in four of the past five games. He’s starting to figure out the NBA.
“It’s a big learning year,” Zeller said Monday. “I feel like I’m a lot better than I was a month ago and hopefully I’ll be a lot better a month from now.”
Based on making the all-tournament team at the Las Vegas Summer League, Zeller showed up on several watch lists for NBA rookie of the year. Other rookies, like Philadelphia’s Michael Carter-Williams and Orlando’s Victor Oladipo, are doing more so far.
Seven-footer Zeller is averaging 5.3 points and 4.2 rebounds. He’s played every game as a reserve this season, partially because power forward Josh McRoberts has been so effective as a passer on a team that needs facilitators.
Zeller, too, is a good passer/decision-maker, but the difference in experience for now is telling.
“One of my strengths is my basketball IQ – knowing where guys are going to be even before they’re there. A lot of this right now is learning my teammates better so that, the way NBA defenses are, I can take advantage of that,” Zeller said.
Zeller played mostly center at Indiana because the Hoosiers needed him in the post. Now he’s more at the top of the key offensively. In Las Vegas, his first step got him consistently to the rim. In real NBA games, the competition has been much stiffer.
“If I have a quickness advantage, I try to drive, but sometimes defenses drop off so I need to shoot,” Zeller said.
Defense has been more of a challenge, one Clifford anticipated.
“He’s further ahead offensively than defensively, but that’s true for almost all rookies,” Clifford said.
“NBA defense is so different from college defense that I’ve never been around a (rookie) who was ready defensively. College defenses are very basic for the most part. With the quality of players in the NBA and the rules, you can’t be like that. So it’s always an adjustment.”
Part of that is mental, some of it physical. Zeller is no weakling at 240 pounds, but he needs more strength, so as not to be pushed around as he sometimes has been. After some foul trouble early in the season, he’s now adjusted to how the NBA is called – no more than two fouls in any of the past eight games.
As far as getting stronger, Zeller said that’s on his to-do list, but this must be a balancing act with what got him to the NBA in the first place.
“One of my advantages is my speed and quickness, so I need to take care of that as well,” by not getting too bulky.
Rick Bonnell: 704-358-5129; Twitter: @rick_bonnell