Cody Zeller displays versatility, vulnerabilities in Bobcats debut
LAS VEGAS — As the final minutes before his professional — well, pseudo-professional — debut ticked down, Cody Zeller was in a place he’s been hundreds of times before: watching one of his older brothers play basketball.
The youngest brother couldn’t escape his last name, not even on the night of his first Summer League game, thanks to older brother Tyler, who scored 15 points and grabbed seven rebounds to lead the Cavaliers past the Lakers on Friday. Baby-faced Cody stood quietly in a back corner of the Cox Pavilion gym, thumbs hooked in his backpack straps, briefly cracking a half-smile as Tyler knocked down a late jumper.
“It was cool, I haven’t seen him play in awhile,” Cody said, later Friday night. “Hopefully I’ll get to see him later in the week. He looked good, just like he always does.”
Despite that scene, the tagalong days are long gone. After Luke, 26, and Tyler, 23, it’s now the 20-year-old Cody’s turn to take a crack at NBA life. Easily the most physically talented of the three brothers, Cody was taken by the Bobcats with the No. 4 pick in last month’s draft.
His first outing with the Bobcats began with an airball and ended with a late game-winner by Spurs guard Cory Joseph. Everything he did in between that false start and the dramatic close proved compelling, largely because he was the only 2013 lottery pick to take the court on the opening day of Las Vegas Summer League. Also, because his selection was one of this year’s most debated picks.
Zeller’s debut offered nourishment for backers and critics alike. The lasting sense was that his activity level exceeded his impact, as he tallied a modest eight points (on four-for-nine shooting), five rebounds and two assists in Charlotte’s 69-68 loss to San Antonio on Friday.
A natural feel for the game and unusual mobility have been Zeller’s calling cards since he was the Indiana high school Mr. Basketball in 2011, and both strengths were evident against the Spurs. Charlotte appears committed to maximizing his versatility, moving him around regularly in halfcourt sets. In addition to the high screens that will surely make up a good chunk of his offensive game, Zeller found himself facing up from the wings and trying to establish position in the mid-post.
He wasn’t overly aggressive in the halfcourt, wasting little time moving the ball around the perimeter when covered, and working fluidly through progressions as the Bobcats ran players off of him at the high post. Most of his scoring, meanwhile, came in transition. He ran hard to create multiple dunks at the rim for himself and to open attacking lanes for his teammates when defenses adjusted to counter for his presence.
“[Summer League] feels a little like AAU back in the day,” he said. “Playing a lot of different games in a short amount of time. Playing with guys you aren’t used to. It’s definitely fun.”
There’s no question that Zeller moves smoothly and confidently in the open court, when his instincts are allowed to run free. On one sequence, he came up with a loose ball and immediately pushed the ball up the floor himself, something you rarely see from a seven-footer. On another, he managed to catch a pass around his ankles while under the rim, stopping quickly and adjusting to finish the play with defenders in the vicinity. Together with 2012 lottery pick Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, the Bobcats could be on to something here.
Against a set defense, Zeller wasn’t the same force. His jump shot wasn’t on, which narrowed his options, and he looked content to play set-up man when the ball was in his hands.
“Getting my teammates involved [was my focus],” he explained. “Creating plays off the elbow, pick-and-roll, hand-offs. I just want to create plays for my teammates.”
It’s easy to envision where the Bobcats are going with this, using Zeller as a high-post power forward in tandem with traditional low-post big man Al Jefferson, signed as a free agent this summer. Zeller’s comfort handling the ball, reading defenses to find open teammates and shooting stroke make him a nice option at the elbow. Even though his skill level doesn’t yet warrant extra attention from a team’s defense, his versatility presents a fairly unique challenge.
The concerns about Zeller’s ability to step in and play helpful minutes — perhaps as a starter — come in other areas. On Friday, he exerted consistent effort on the glass, on both ends, but often got lost in the forest. He was able to track down loose balls and extend a few possessions, but he didn’t exhibit a command presence on the boards. That will be a major issue when the level of competitions increases this fall.
Defensively, he could be in for a long season, particularly considering that Charlotte’s big men include the no-defense Jefferson, 33-year-old Brendan Haywood and the still raw Bismack Biyombo. Charlotte ranked dead last in defensive efficiency last season and meaningful improvement next season would be stunning. Zeller moved well in pick-and-roll situations Friday, but his youth and relatively thin frame combine to invite drives right at him. He showed off his length by extending to block a face-up midrange shot, but that was about the extent of it. He committed five fouls in 30 minutes; one or two were ticky-tacky but the others were required to prevent point-blank buckets.
“It’s going to be up and down to start with, just because I’m not used to playing this style of ball,” Zeller said. “The speed of the game, different rules of the NBA, different players, different game styles, it’s a completely different game.”
Team-wide expectations are always low in Charlotte, but Zeller will carry the top-five pick label for the rest of his career, good or bad. He didn’t seem overly concerned with that fact on Day One. He wasn’t worried about the boos his selection received on draft night, or the years it will take to help the Bobcats dig out of their extended funk, or the constant comparisons to his brothers.
He wasn’t even sweating the airball, an 18-footer that came up so short it touched only the bottom of the outside of the net.
“I don’t know,” he laughed, refusing to cop to opening night nerves. “It just happens.”