Charlotte Hornets

2013 NBA draft: Charlotte Bobcats’ picking Cody Zeller did produce passion

I’ve covered every Charlotte Hornets, Carolina Panthers and Charlotte Bobcats draft. And I can tell you this: Fans reacted with more anger when the Bobcats selected Cody Zeller Thursday than they have with any player in any draft involving our three major league teams.

N.C. State fans were angry in 2005 when the Bobcats took North Carolina guard Raymond Felton with the fifth pick and North Carolina forward Sean May with the 13th. So were those of us who knew that the Bobcats could have traded the picks, moved up to No. 3 and taken Illinois’ Deron Williams or Wake Forest’s Chris Paul. (The Bobcats rated Williams in front of Paul on their board.)

Panthers fans were angry in 2011 when I wrote that Carolina would invest the No. 1 pick in the NFL draft on Auburn quarterback Cam Newton. The debate was nasty: Newton was going to be great. No, he was going to be JaMarcus Russell, the failed quarterback Oakland took with the No. 1 pick four years earlier.

The Panthers held a draft party outside Bank of America Stadium. When fans watching the big screen in the stadium parking lot saw Newton go first, they clapped and hooted with joy. If anybody booed, I didn’t hear them.

When the Bobcats selected Adam Morrison with the third pick in 2006, there was little outcry. The outcry came when they saw him play.

Zeller, 20, and a forward out of Indiana, made his first appearance as a Bobcat Friday at Time Warner Cable Arena. He was courteous, funny and 7-feet. Not everybody who claims to weigh 120 pounds weighs 120 pounds. Not everybody who claims to be 7-feet is 7-feet. Zeller is.

There’s was nothing controversial about Zeller. He didn’t seem like an instrument of evil.

But he was Thursday. Fans at the draft party in the arena lobby booed the pick as if they had prepared for the moment by growing up in Philadelphia.

Zeller received some support on Twitter. The majority of the tweets, however, expressed incredulity, anger and dis(Sean)may. I didn’t send all of them.

In retrospect, the anger had less to do with Zeller than it did the shock of hearing his name.

We all had our guys. Mine was Nerlens Noel, the Kentucky center with the torn ACL. Maryland center Alex Len had proponents. So did Kansas guard Ben McLemore. Obviously, the choice was going to be one of the three. Most mock drafts had one of them going with the first pick. And here they were at No. 4.

Professionals mock mock drafts.

We all had our favorites, and we knew, knew I tell you, that ours would be the player to save Charlotte.

Because few of us expected the Bobcats to select Zeller, Zeller was rarely our guy. Rumors of Charlotte’s interest in Zeller emerged midweek. But every draft comes with rumors, and unless you know and trust the source you’re a sap to believe them. I didn’t know the source.

So when, with the fourth pick in the 2013 NBA draft, the Bobcats selected Zeller, I reacted the way most of you did. I was shocked, indignant and properly put-upon. I might even have said a bad word.

Many writers and analysts have assessed letter grades. I’d give Charlotte the same grade I’d give the other 29 teams – incomplete.

We don’t know. We didn’t know Luke Kuechly would play so well at middle linebacker that it’s tough to remember he’s been a professional for one season. We didn’t know that Steve Smith, a third-round pick in 2001, would be the best player the Panthers have ever had. We didn’t know that Kobe Bryant, whom the Hornets drafted No. 13 in 1996, would become one of the best players in NBA history.

The Hornets, of course, selected Bryant only because the Los Angeles Lakers directed them to. Charlotte agreed to trade Los Angeles the pick for Vlade Divac before the draft began.

Charlotte general manager Rich Cho could have placated fans by picking one of the players he was supposed to. But if you’re a general manager, and you don’t trust your gut, you shouldn’t be a general manager. It’s not about the masses. It’s about you.

Cho spent so much time at in Bloomington, Ind., he probably picked up more Marriott points scouting Zeller than most of us pick up in a year.

The most interesting statement from Cho about Zeller: He’s “the best athlete in the draft and the best big athlete to come out in many years.”

I still prefer Noel. Players come back intact from knee injuries. A defensive specialist in the middle is as important in his way as a point guard is in his.

Yet I thought Thursday was a great night for Charlotte. There was an absence of apathy. Anybody who says Charlotte doesn’t care about the NBA doesn’t follow the sport.

Louisville won the NCAA basketball championship April 8. So we had 80 days to pick the player we wanted. By draft night, we felt as if we knew the guy. We also knew he was the one true player Charlotte had to have.

Cho also knew.

Hope he’s right.

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