The Charlotte Bobcats front office expressed huge conviction Thursday night that Indiana big man Cody Zeller was the obvious choice as the No. 4 overall pick.
Based on crowd reaction at Time Warner Cable Arena, they still have some convincing to do.
The Bobcats chose Zeller, a skilled but slim 7-footer, over big men Nerlens Noel of Kentucky and Maryland center Alex Len, plus Kansas shooting guard Ben McLemore. That set off a round of shocked and angry reactions from fans at a draft party in the arena lobby.
Bobcats president of basketball operations Rod Higgins asked for patience:
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“I want to ask them to give Cody an opportunity to show he’s a very good player. To give the Bobcats a chance to help him be a great player. We’re very excited.”
General manager Rich Cho added, “The fans are going to love this guy. He’s a worker. You’ll see why we chose Cody as the fourth pick.”
Cho said there were several trade scenarios the front office considered once Anthony Bennett (Cleveland), Victor Oladipo (Orlando) and Otto Porter (Washington) were selected 1-2-3.
“But at the end of the day,” Cho said, “we didn’t feel comfortable moving back and (possibly) losing Cody.”
Zeller’s strengths are the ability to run the floor and to shoot with range. During his workout in Charlotte he hit the 3-pointer from NBA range with consistency. That could make him a “stretch 4” – NBA lingo for a power forward who can force a defense to chase him far from the basket, opening driving lanes for others.
But at 240 pounds, Zeller acknowledged in a conference call with Charlotte media he might need to put on muscle and bulk to compete at the next level.
“I could put on 15 to 20 pounds, as long as I keep my speed and quickness,” Zeller said Thursday. “That’s what sets me apart.”
Zeller was projected in most mock drafts to go in the seven-to-12 range. But Cho said he was clearly their favorite at No. 4 versus the alternatives. At various times Noel, McLemore and Len all appeared viable to be the top pick in 2013.
“People forget he was (projected as) the No. 1 pick in the preseason,” Cho said. “He’s a versatility pick – inside and outside (scorer). He’s one of the best athletes in this draft. His work ethic is off the charts. He’s a competitor and his character is off the charts.”
Zeller averaged 16.5 points and 8.0 rebounds for the Hoosiers last season, shooting 56 percent from the field. With two relatively limited scorers playing center and small forward, in Bismack Biyombo and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, it was essential the Bobcats found another frontcourt player with a knack for scoring.
Zeller said he found Charlotte to be a good fit during his predraft visit. Of the seven viable candidates for the fourth pick, he was the only one to work out for the Bobcats. Three others – Noel, Bennett and Len – were injured. The rest declined offers to work out for various reasons.
“I had a great workout there. They got to know me personally off the court,” Zeller said. “It seems like that program, that organization, is headed in the right direction.”
He has doubters. During a radio appearance on WFNZ-AM 610 Thursday morning, ESPN analyst and former Virginia Tech coach Seth Greenberg predicted Zeller would be an “average” NBA player. Greenberg said he can’t recall a player of Zeller’s size and skill set as an NBA starter. He questioned whether Zeller’s lower body strength could hold up against NBA big men.
The Bobcats’ situation at power forward is unsettled. The starter at the end of last season, Josh McRoberts, will be an unrestricted free agent. Byron Mullens will be a restricted free agent, assuming the Bobcats extend him a $3.2 million qualifying offer by June 30.
The Bobcats still owe forward Tyrus Thomas about $18 million over the next two seasons, but there’s a possibility – perhaps a strong one – Thomas will be waived next month under the NBA’s amnesty provision. That would allow the Bobcats to stop counting Thomas’ salary against their cap.
Asked how the Zeller pick would impact free-agency, Cho said, “We probably won’t have as much of a need at the (power forward) spot.”
Zeller is the third brother in his family to reach the NBA. Luke spent a portion of last season with the Phoenix Suns and Tyler – who played collegiately for North Carolina – is with the Cleveland Cavaliers.
NBA scouts typically describe Cody as the most athletic of the three brothers – springier and quicker than his older siblings. That attracted the Bobcats.
“We’re a running basketball team,” Higgins said, “and he fits that.”