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Cody Zeller Isn’t Ready to be the Starting Center

Charlotte Hornets' Cody Zeller (40) grabs a rebound in front of Detroit Pistons' Reggie Jackson (1) in the first half of an NBA basketball game in Charlotte, N.C., Monday, Dec. 7, 2015. (AP Photo/Chuck Burton) (Chuck Burton)
AP Photo/Chuck Burton

With Al Jefferson’s calf injury and subsequent suspension, the Charlotte Hornets have gotten a glimpse of what Cody Zeller can accomplish at the center position, and honestly the results could have been better. On paper, Zeller’s athleticism and low usage makes him a perfect compliment to the perimeter-driven offense of the Hornets, but that hasn’t exactly translated into success on the court for Zeller, or the team. Specifically, his rebounding and rim protection have been a cause for concern.

Zeller’s never put up spectacular rebounding numbers, but that was partially explainable due to his relatively minimal playing time – at least compared to typical starters. For his career, he has only averaged five rebounds per game, and is currently averaging only 4.9 rebounds per game. Despite having the highest rebound chase rate of his teammates – 28.3 percent – Zeller has managed to obtain only 31.8 percent of the rebounds he chased, which is the lowest rebound win rate of anybody on the Hornets, per Nylon Calculus (through games played on Dec. 20).

The problem has only been exacerbated by Zeller’s shift in positions. Obviously, due to Jefferson’s injury, Cody Zeller has been bumped up into the starting lineup, and his already lackluster rebounding numbers took a hit. As a power forward, Zeller averages 8.7 rebounds per 36 minutes (through games played on Dec. 20), but when he plays the center position, Zeller only collects 6.2 rebounds per 36 minutes, according to Nylon Calculus.

His diminished rebounding is particularly troubling since the Hornets’ defense is predicated on limiting opponents’ offensive rebounds. The Hornets do not feature an abundance of defensive-minded personnel, so they rely on simple principles to stifle opposing offenses. Making sure opponents don’t overwhelm them on the glass is one of them. They swarm the boards to ensure teams don’t have multiple chances to score.

It’s not entirely clear what is causing Zeller’s dip in rebounds. However, there are a couple of factors that it can be ascribed to. He might have trouble dealing with starting centers on a more consistent basis after dealing with bench units. Or it might be due to him starting alongside Marvin Williams, who is in the midst of a career year in terms of rebounding. There is a chance that Williams might be “stealing” rebounds from Zeller, but it’s doubtful since Williams has never been known for hoarding rebounds.

Oct. 28, 2015 - Miami, FL, USA - The Miami Heat's Dwyane Wade (3) fights a loose ball with the Charlotte Hornets' Cody Zeller in the first quarter on Wednesday, Oct. 28, 2015, at AmericanAirlines Arena in Miami. The Heat won, 104-94. (Photo by El Nuevo Herald/Zuma Press/Icon Sportswire)

Oct. 28, 2015 – Miami, FL, USA – The Miami Heat’s Dwyane Wade (3) fights a loose ball with the Charlotte Hornets’ Cody Zeller in the first quarter on Wednesday, Oct. 28, 2015, at AmericanAirlines Arena in Miami. The Heat won, 104-94. (Photo by El Nuevo Herald/Zuma Press/Icon Sportswire)

Ultimately his rebounding may not prove to be a significant problem, though. The Hornets still rebound better with him on the floor than off, so his presence hasn’t become a detriment as of yet. Though the team only rebounds .7 percent better with him on the floor, per BasketballReference.com, so the rebounding advantage he provides might be marginal at best.

Besides rebounding, Cody Zeller has also proven himself as a less than ideal rim protector. Charlotte’s defense is built around the absence of a proficient rim protector; they pack the paint on drives, forcing mid-range shots while making sure they cede as few three-pointers as possible. This minimizes the necessity of a typical rim protector, but having one would be beneficial especially with Michael Kidd-Gilchrist being out for the season.

Zeller has only prevented, or “saved” .62 points per 36 minutes from being scored at the rim by the opposition, according to Nylon Calculus (through games played on Dec. 20). Unimpressive as it is, it is only second to Marvin Williams who managed to save 1.04 points per 36 minutes from being scored. Opponents also seem to shoot 50 percent at the rim when Zeller contests. Despite his size and skill, opponents still find ways to score against him at the rim at a relatively efficient percentage.

As tempting as it is to think Cody Zeller could one day inherit or supplant Al Jefferson for the starting spot, it might be time to recognize some of Zeller’s limitations. It is not intended as a knock against him. He probably tops out as a third big off the bench, and there is nothing wrong with that. He’s a valuable backup, but his worth as a starter is still up for debate.

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