Is it possible for a 7-footer to be a runt?
Apparently so if you’re Cody Zeller, youngest of three basketball-playing brothers and the Charlotte Bobcats’ selection Thursday with the No. 4 overall pick.
“I’m six years younger than Luke and three years younger than Tyler,’’ Zeller said of brothers who preceded him to the NBA. “So I was always bending rules, scrapping to compete.’’
Zeller’s coach at Indiana, Tom Crean, calls Zeller “mentally tougher than any player I’ve coached.’’ He seemingly got that having to stand up to older brothers at the driveway basket.
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Elsewhere, too. Zeller said he and his siblings compete at everything – who can eat a pizza fastest, who can fall asleep fastest. It’s just how they’re wired.
Luke played last season with the Phoenix Suns. He accompanied Cody to New York for Thursday’s draft, then on to Charlotte for Friday’s introductory news conference. He calls his youngest brother a “prankster’’ – an extraverted, wisecracking guy with a knack for keeping friends and teammates loose.
Luke said his parents demanded that the boys stay unpretentious, even as each became a major basketball recruit. Luke said it’s representative of Cody’s approach that the big celebratory dinner after the draft was in a pizzeria, rather than some fancy restaurant.
Crean, who coached Zeller two seasons in Bloomington, had similar recollections during a media conference call Friday.
“For all his accolades, he came in as a great teammate. He could laugh at himself,’’ Crean said.
That doesn’t mean Zeller isn’t serious about basketball. Crean called Zeller and fellow Hoosier Victor Oladipo (No. 2 pick to the Orlando Magic) “competitive nightmares’’ for their opponents.
The Bobcats knew all that. General manager Rich Cho was in Bloomington constantly over the winter, checking out various aspects of Zeller’s makeup.
“Charlotte did a great job of spending extra time’’ in the scouting process, Crean said. “Rich Cho would come in for a couple of days each time.’’
Zeller said it was hard not to notice as the season wore on how much Cho was around the Indiana program. With two older brothers already in the NBA (Tyler, a former North Carolina star, plays for the Cleveland Cavaliers), Cody understood the vetting process.
“It’s a big investment for any NBA team,’’ Zeller said of the fourth pick. “They’re going back to your childhood and everywhere else (to investigate your makeup). Fortunately, I had nothing to hide.’’
The Bobcats passed over some formidable prospects – Kansas shooting guard Ben McLemore and big men Nerlens Noel of Kentucky and Alex Len of Maryland – to select Zeller fourth.
McLemore and Oladipo would work out for the Bobcats only individually, which Cho said was unacceptable. Zeller auditioned for the Bobcats with several other players. It was one of 10 workouts he participated in all around the NBA.
“I’ve been playing basketball my whole life, so I had no problem working out against anyone,’’ Zeller said. “I like proving myself.’’
In that workout Zeller hit a slew of NBA 3-pointers after attempting just two college 3s in two seasons at Indiana. New Bobcats coach Steve Clifford called it “eye-opening’’ that Zeller was such a proficient shooter.
It’s clear the Bobcats plan to fast-track Zeller into a role in their rotation. They need his scoring in a frontcourt where center Bismack Biyombo and small forward Michael Kidd-Gilchrist combined for just 14 points a game last season.
“Stretch 4s’’ – power forwards with the shooting range to spread defenses – are in vogue these days in the NBA. The current trend essentially started with Rashard Lewis playing for the Magic. Clifford was on that coaching staff in Orlando, and made a point Friday of comparing what Lewis did with how Zeller can contribute in Charlotte.
But that’s not all Clifford expects of Zeller. Clifford said Zeller’s best attribute is versatility. He runs the floor well and physical testing at the NBA Combine last month showed he has particularly quick feet for a 7-footer.
Those are tools Clifford can employ defensively on a team that was in the bottom three last season in points allowed and opponent field-goal percentage.
Offensively Clifford has all sorts of plans for Zeller. He’s happy point guard Kemba Walker plans to practice with the summer league team, so that Walker and Zeller can start collaborating in pick-and-rolls. Clifford also sees Zeller as a shooter-ballhandler at the top of the key, which could open more driving lanes for Kidd-Gilchrist, Gerald Henderson and Jeff Taylor.
That’s all good with Zeller, and so is moving to the Carolinas.
“I love sweet tea,’’ Zeller said. “So I was really excited.’’