In My Opinion

Hornets need Cody Zeller to emerge with Josh McRoberts gone

sfowler@charlotteobserver.comJuly 8, 2014 

HORNETS0531_16

Charlotte Hornets head coach Steve Clifford plays defense against Cody Zeller at practice.

JEFF SINER — jsiner@charlotteobserver.com

So here is the main problem with Cody Zeller taking over for Josh McRoberts in the starting lineup of the Charlotte Hornets.

Zeller is a power forward who is not that powerful.

Despite a build that sounds imposing – he is listed at 7 feet tall and 240 pounds – Zeller is not a physical presence in the low block by NBA standards.

An average game for Zeller last season included six points and 4.3 rebounds in 17.3 minutes – all respectable numbers for a rookie.

But then came those couple of plays a game that just made you wince.

Zeller would find a lane to the basket, because he’s quick enough to do that, and then would come another giant rising to meet him. Zeller would sort of crumple during contact, throw up a wild shot that missed and hope for a foul call.

“He has to improve on things that he didn’t do well last year,” Hornets associate head coach Patrick Ewing said of Zeller. “One of the things I’ve told him is … when he drives the ball he has to finish it stronger than he has been.”

Ewing would know, because he generally finished plays in the post by dunking in someone’s face. Zeller will never be that guy, but he does have potential to be much better than last season. And his development, or lack thereof, will be one of the biggest story lines of Charlotte’s season.

Zeller knows McRoberts’ sudden absence will mean more minutes for him and likely a starting role. McRoberts, a free agent, has agreed to sign with the Miami Heat. A source says Marvin Williams, a former North Carolina power forward, will visit the Hornets, too. Williams hit 36 percent of his 3-point attempts last season with the Utah Jazz, averaging 9.1 points.

“There’s obviously one less guy in my position,” Zeller said, “but I’m not going to change. I’m working just as hard as I ever was.”

Zeller – who was a second-team All-NBA rookie selection and one of only two rookies to play in all 82 games – is one of those guys who is always going to work. Then again, Bismack Biyombo is like that, too, and his limitations remain painfully obvious.

Zeller’s limitations were never more apparent than in the playoff series against Miami, when he barely played and made no impact.

What would really help Zeller is a more consistent jump shot. Teams played him almost exclusively for the drive. He only took a single 3-pointer all season, missing it. His mid-range jumper was not good enough, either (he shot 42.6 percent from the field).

But there he was at summer league practice this week, burying one 3-pointer after another. Zeller looked as good as McRoberts used to in the same drills – the difference being McRoberts would make the shot during games, and Zeller hasn’t. Nor, to be fair, was he asked to.

Now he will be asked to make that shot and many others. If he can’t, the Hornets will find a veteran like Williams who can and who will grab Zeller’s minutes. Rookie Noah Vonleh also plays power forward but is raw and probably won’t be a big factor in his first season.

“The outside shot could add more to my game and open more driving lanes for me,” Zeller said. “It’s definitely something I’ve been working on.”

Zeller will play – and likely be one of the standouts – on the Hornets’ summer league team in Las Vegas this month. But the real test will come in November, when the next NBA season starts.

The best NBA players make a significant improvement between Year 1 and Year 2. For the Hornets to get better, Zeller has to make that leap.

Fowler: sfowler@charlotteobserver.com; Twitter: @scott_fowler

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