Before the season ever started, new Charlotte Bobcats coach Steve Clifford said rookie Cody Zeller would have to play a big part for this team to reach its potential.
Hasn’t happened yet. Not close.
The No. 4 overall draft pick in June, Zeller flashed big potential in the Las Vegas summer league. Halfway through his first NBA season, however, he described himself as a role player, averaging five points, 3.8 rebounds and just under 17 minutes per game. He said he’s fine with that on a team trying to reach the playoffs.
This has been nothing like a splash. Clifford said Zeller’s transition is normal these days among first-round picks, because they can’t anticipate how different it will be playing against grown men who are the world’s best basketball players.
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“He’s made gains. But he needs to learn how to act like a pro, think like a pro, practice like a pro, play like a pro. That’s not easy to do at 20 or 21 years old,” Clifford said.
“When Cody went to practice at Indiana, probably if he’s at 70 percent concentration, he’s still the only 7-footer there. Those guys can’t keep him from doing things. Here, if he’s not on,” he’ll be dominated.
The 2013 draft class has had little impact in general. Philadelphia 76ers point guard Michael Carter-Williams, the 11th overall pick, was good immediately. The first pick, Anthony Bennett, has been so bad in Cleveland he might be sent to the Development League.
The players chosen just before and after Zeller – Otto Porter in Washington and Alex Len in Phoenix – have done little.
Zeller is playing behind Josh McRoberts at power forward, and for now the gap between them is significant.
Seventh-season pro McRoberts isn’t just more experienced, he’s strong enough to guard without foul trouble. Zeller has speed, quickness, skill and basketball IQ, but at 7-0 and 240 pounds, he doesn’t yet have what Clifford calls the “functional strength” to face off against the Blake Griffins and Zach Randolphs who define NBA power forwards.
“It’s his hips, his core, his back. It takes some time,” Clifford said. “When Blake Griffin hits (a rookie), normally he goes straight (to where he wants to be) and the other guy goes that way.”
Zeller seems to accept all this well. He said after practice Tuesday – the Bobcats will play Griffin and the Los Angeles Clippers on Wednesday – he embraces what the coaches have asked of him and he feels better about his performance the past few games.
“Everyone on the court is so talented that there is not much room for error,” Zeller said. “On defense if you’re a step late, it’s an easy layup. If you hesitate a little bit on offense it’s the difference between two points and a turnover.”
He often compares notes with former Indiana teammate Victor Oladipo, chosen second overall by the Orlando Magic. Oladipo’s scoring looks more impressive (13.5 points per game), but Zeller understands the Magic is in full-rebuild mode.
“We’re in a lot different situations,” Zeller said. “He gets a lot of chance to play, the ball is always in his hands. He’s playing different positions, they’re asking a lot of him. A lot of shot attempts, a lot of attention.”
Zeller understands the Bobcats’ need for him to get stronger, but he said there’s only so much bulk his frame can support, and he’s trying to work his way through the issue.
“I’ve always been undersized,” Zeller said. “Even when you’re not the strongest guy, you need to play strong. It’s outworking your guy, using advantages you do have. Obviously I can put on some weight, but I’m never going to be 280.”
Zeller was named to the all-summer league team after averaging 16.3 points and 9.3 rebounds in Las Vegas. He showed up as a rookie of the year candidate in nba.com’s preseason poll of general managers. Four months later it’s questionable whether he’ll be selected for the game matching first- and second-year pros at All-Star Weekend.
Zeller said he’s never let where he was drafted create undue pressure.
“I’ve dealt with pressure my whole life,” said Zeller, youngest of three brothers who have played in the NBA.
“You just have to worry about what coaches are telling you, what your teammates are saying. Not worry about what the media is saying or the fans. They aren’t in the locker room, they aren’t on the practice court.”
Bobcats teammate Gerald Henderson relates. Like Zeller, Henderson was a lottery pick out of a high-profile college program (Duke). He played so little as a rookie that he never got into the 2010 playoff series against the Magic.
“This is a different monster,” Henderson said. “This is his first time seeing it, and that split-second makes all the difference: The recognition and anticipation.”
Clifford said force-feeding Zeller minutes, as some fans have advocated, wouldn’t speed this process.
“People think by throwing them out there, they get better. I don’t agree,” Clifford said. “I want a role that 1) he earns and 2) that he can play well in. If that’s 16 minutes right now, then that’s what he needs to be.”