The Big, Improving Cat: Cody Zeller’s Neat-O Journey to the NBA
The 2013 NBA Draft Class was labeled as weak, and this season has done little to change that initial assessment. Washington followers know this first hand, as third overall pick Otto Porter missed half the season due to injury and has been mostly buried on the bench since. It is way too pre-mature to throw the “bust” word around, but Porter’s billing of being the most NBA-ready was clearly a miscalculation. The Wizards passed on Nerlens Noel, perhaps due to his knee injury, and the 7-foot center’s name is one fans bring up when speculating if the 2013 selection will come back to bite the organization.
A player who is rarely if ever mentioned as an alternate choice is the one picked directly after Porter, Cody Zeller, of the Charlotte Bobcats. Zeller had a slow start adjusting to the NBA and, like Porter, was not chosen for the Rising Star Challenge game at All-Star weekend, which is a honor bestowed on the best crop of first- and second-year players. In the past few months, things have started to click for Zeller and the numbers bear out his improvement. Since the All-Star game, Zeller is shooting 51.6 percent from the field compared to 38 percent before the break.
How would you evaluate Zeller’s progression over the season?
@CardboardGerald: Zeller’s progress has been slow but certainly not helped by the Bobcats’ offensive problems. Until recently the Bobcats’ offense was anemic and poorly spaced. It lacked shooting to open up passing and driving lanes or to prevent defenders from rotating easily. So Zeller didn’t really see much success until after the All-Star break, when the offense really began to click. His jump shot hasn’t been consistent and if that’s not falling, then it becomes easier for opponents to defend him knowing the paint is his best shot. And because he hasn’t developed the strength to punish his defenders there, he hasn’t been very effective.
What is the current vibe among ‘Cats about Zeller right now?
@CardboardGerald: The current vibe is that they’re going to let him control his destiny. They’re not giving him a role that’s more than he can chew at this point but they’re going to let him find his comfort zone in his rookie season off the bench.
Realistically, where do you see his game in the future?
@CardboardGerald: Unless major steps are made in the next year or two, I see him being this same kind of bench big man he is now. He desperately needs to add on upper body strength and to develop a more consistent shot. He’s really athletic and not a bad defender and with decent touch on his shots, but without those things to improve on, he’s going to have a hard time, it seems. The common refrain we hear about Zeller is that he “doesn’t look comfortable” a lot. But how comfortable can you be without a jump shot to keep defenders honest and going against a defense covering fewer square feet?
When Zeller was drafted, what was the reaction of Bobcats fans? What did you think of the pick?
@CardboardGerald: Fan reaction was overwhelmingly negative at first. It’s in YouTube videos, it’s in comments, it’s on Twitter, it’s wherever. I was pretty nonplussed, too. No one had him going so early and it wasn’t difficult to see why considering the scouting reports on him that pretty much have him pegged as what we see now, at least offensively.
Nerlens Noel is still unknown, but many Wiz fans are regretting the team taking Porter over him. Did the ‘Cats make the right decision to pick Zeller over Noel? Are there similar negative feelings about passing up on Noel?
@CardboardGerald: I’m not sure how anyone can say one way or the other at this point considering Noel has yet to even play a game and this is only their rookie season. If there are negative feelings about passing up on Noel, I haven’t seen them. Noel might be a spectacular player when he starts his career but when there are so many unknowns, I really have no idea. The Bobcats had a few options at No. 4 in that draft. Ben McLemore could have helped their shooting. Noel could very well be the best player available a year or further down the road and a handful of teams will face that revelation in hindsight.
General observations on Zeller?
@CardboardGerald: He’s kind of carved out this niche in the reserve role, picking his spots well on offense to get to the rack when he can. He’s gotten better at this as the season has worn on, which helps him finish through less contact. He’s also done decently well as a rebounder. Because Clifford doesn’t have him in a big role, he can do pretty well as a reserve in limited time as he gets more comfortable. Questions remain concerning his future, but he is building on what he’s shown.
I had a chance to chat with Zeller before the Bobcats defeated the Wizards last month.
What has your NBA experience been like so far?
Zeller: It has been fun. It is a big jump going from college to the NBA. The rookie year is always a big learning year. I feel like that I have been doing that well. Learning throughout the season from different games and practices. Obviously, the vets are good, and trying to help me along. I feel like that I have improved throughout the year. That is the biggest thing.
What is the main difference between college and NBA ball?
Zeller: The biggest thing is the best players in the world every night. In college, you would have a couple good matchups—a couple good teams here and there. Now, there is no non-conference games. No week off. None of that. You got the best players in the world, back-to-back, four games in five nights. No easy games or matchups. You have to be prepared for every game, 82 nights. That is the biggest change.
What was your first ‘Welcome to the NBA Moment’?
Zeller: There wasn’t really one moment. I think it was fun for me to go around and play at this different arenas for the first time. Playing against guys that I grew up watching.
Anyone in particular?
Zeller: Not really… It was neat for me to play at Madison Square Garden for the first time. I had never done that in college. That was neat. Playing against the Knicks is something that you always dream of. That was pretty neat.
Have you been back to this arena since last spring?
(Zeller’s Indiana Hoosiers were upset by Syracuse at Verizon Center in the 2013 NBA regional semi-final game. He got quiet for a few seconds and I obviously touched a nerve, but he is too damn nice to get upset.)
Zeller: Naw, not since then… We had a fun year. We won a lot of games. I don’t get too worried about anything like that.
How do you keep working on your game with the travel schedule of a NBA player?
Zeller: I have figured out a way. This is all I got to do. There is no class. No study hall. I have not had a problem getting to the gym extra. Whether it is 30 or 45 minutes before or after practice. Coming in on an off day. Something like that. I have found plenty of times to work on my game.
Al (Jefferson) joked you need to be a better rookie. What was he referring?
Jefferson interrupted: “He needs to get towels, doesn’t do that enough, nothing.”
Any bad hazing?
Zeller: It is not too bad. Just getting food after games. Towels here and there. Nothing too bad.
No pink backpacks?
(NBA rookies CJ McCollum and Glen Rice, Jr. both have sported kids’ backpacks this season)
Zeller: Naw, don’t give him (Al) any ideas.
What is the experience of having a brother in the NBA?
Zeller: It is neat, because we grew up playing against each other in the backyard and now we are playing against each other on the biggest stage. It is definitely neat for both of us to share that with each other. I am definitely proud of him and even Luke (other brother) was with the Suns all year last year. It is neat for all of us to share that.
What do you know about Otto Porter?
Zeller: He is cool. We played against each other when he was at Georgetown. I got to know him a little bit better throughout the draft process. He is a lot of fun to be around. He is neat.
Did you ever play against Bradley Beal?
Zeller: We were in the same class and in the McDonald’s game, AAU, stuff like that. I know him pretty well, too. He has been a great shooter for as long as I can remember and been a great scorer. He is obviously a talented player.
What is it like to be around Michael Jordan and have him as your boss?
Zeller: It is definitely neat. Obviously, the best player, ever. Anytime you can get anything from him or even interact with him, it is a neat experience. I just try to take anything you can get from him. It is neat to have him around. He just acts like one of the guys. So he will be in the locker room or training room. Just chit-chatting with guys.
Bobcats Coach Steve Clifford on Zeller’s development:
“I think he has made significant progress over the past three or four weeks…. The things to me that we saw in him in terms of intangibles as a young guy are already starting to come out. Bright, his work habits. He has a natural feel for the game. He is now more comfortable. He is playing off his instincts more. His energy is up but he is just playing so much smarter on the floor. He has played better and better.”