By Sam Perley, hornets.com
Despite some troublesome injuries along the way, Cody Zeller still managed to put up a slew of new career highs in a number of statistical categories over the course of the 2016-17 NBA campaign. Having now completed his fourth season in the league, Zeller has not only emerged as an integral, two-way player for the Hornets, but also one of the better, all-around centers in the NBA as well.
Big Man Showing His Versatility
Firmly cemented in as the team’s first-string center, Zeller’s season got off to a strong start as he averaged 11.7 points on 62.3 percent shooting, 4.8 rebounds, 1.3 assists and 1.1 blocks in his first 11 appearances of the year. This stretch also included a season-high and career-high-tying 23-point performance in a 100-96 home win over the Atlanta Hawks on Nov. 18.
Right shoulder soreness sidelined Zeller for the next three games from Nov. 19-23, but he returned to put up 10.2 points on 58.0 percent shooting, 6.9 rebounds, 1.6 assists and 1.0 block in 20 outings through the end of December.
Injury Bug Bites Zeller
The new year got off to a rough start for Zeller as he missed four of Charlotte’s first five January games because NBA concussion protocol and illness. He averaged 11.4 points on 56.6 percent shooting, 8.3 rebounds, 1.4 assists, 1.0 steal and 1.1 blocks in his first seven overall games of the month before exiting the team’s 109-99 home loss to the Washington Wizards on Jan. 23 with a quadriceps contusion.
This untimely, pesky injury ultimately confined the former Indiana Hoosier to the sidelines for all but one of Charlotte’s next 14 games through Feb. 26. Compounded with additional injuries to some other rotational players, the Hornets went just 2-12 overall during this month-long stretch.
“It was tough. Especially, the team struggled when I was out, which was tough for me as a competitor, just because I’ve put so much into the team,” said Zeller during postseason exit interviews on April 12.
Healthy Finish to the Season
Zeller made his much-anticipated return to the basketball court on Feb. 28 and was back in Charlotte’s starting lineup two games later. In the final 23 contests of the season, Zeller managed averages of 9.4 points on 54.3 percent shooting, 6.6 rebounds, 1.9 assists and 1.4 steals. During this stretch, he racked up 15-or-more points in a career-high three-straight games from March 22-26 and grabbed a season-high-tying 11 rebounds twice on March 6 and March 24.
In 62 total games this year, Zeller tallied personal-best marks in scoring (10.3 points), rebounding (6.5), offensive rebounds (2.2), steals (1.0), double-doubles (six) and field-goal percentage (57.1 percent), the latter of which was the ninth-best rate in the NBA amongst players with at least 400 such attempts. He also matched his career highs in assists (1.6) and blocks (0.9) this season as well.
Zeller ranked third in the NBA in screen assists per game this year (5.9), a statistic that measures how many made field goals were created directly by a player setting screens on offense. Only Washington’s Marcin Gortat (6.2) and Utah’s Rudy Gobert (6.1) created more screen assists per game this season than Zeller did.
Since the start of the 2014-15 NBA campaign, Zeller is one of just three seven-footers in the league to average at least 10.0 points, 6.0 rebounds, 1.0 assists and 1.0 steals over the course of an entire season (Steven Adams, Nikola Vucevic; 2016-17).
Zeller also finished third this year behind only Rudy Gobert (+6.71) and DeAndre Jordan of the Los Angeles Clippers (+4.67) in real plus-minus amongst NBA centers (+3.35 points). This particular statistic calculates Charlotte’s net point differential per 100 possessions when Zeller is on the floor as opposed to when he’s not.
2017-18 Season Outlook
Zeller will begin the first season of a guaranteed four-year extension he signed with the team in November 2016, which will run through the conclusion of the 2020-21 NBA campaign. During end-of-season media availability on April 12, Zeller reflected on the year from both an individual and team standpoint.
“It was a huge benefit [to come in as the team’s starting center]. I think I was comfortable all year there. It was fun playing with this group of guys. Me, Kemba [Walker] and Nic [Batum] in the pick-and-roll every night, which was a lot of fun. I think I was comfortable in that role and we had a lot of success with it,” said Zeller.
“I think we definitely showed that we’re capable of playing well. We had some big wins against some of the best teams in the league this year. We just didn’t put it together for long enough stretches throughout the year. It’s disappointing so much, just because we know that we’re capable of so much more. We’re better, we’re able to compete with some of those teams that are in the playoffs now.”
Added Hornets General Manager Rich Cho, “Cody does a lot of little things that don’t show up in the box score. He’s our best screen setter, our best big defender and definitely one of the best defenders on the team. He does all the little things that don’t show up. But he helps get guys like Kemba [Walker] open, he makes it easy for Nic [Batum], he makes it easy for all the guys. He’s got a high-basketball IQ.”