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Hornets avoid jeopardizing future with Cody Zeller extension

Charlotte Hornets' Cody Zeller poses for a photo during the NBA basketball team's media day in Charlotte, N.C., Monday, Sept. 26, 2016. (AP Photo/Chuck Burton)
AP Photo/Chuck Burton

The Charlotte Hornets and center Cody Zeller came to terms on a four-year, $56 million contract extension right before Monday night’s deadline to do so. When compared to contracts of his contemporaries, Zeller’s deal was a home run for Charlotte.

Considering general manager Rich Cho’s recent track record, the last hour extension shouldn’t come as a surprise. During the offseason, Cho was able to retain the services of Nicolas Batum and Marvin Williams at a discount as well. Based on what Zeller has shown so far, there’s a real chance that he can outperform its value.

Although Zeller has not — at least so far — become the floor-stretching big he was pegged to be coming out of college, he has become an instrumental member to Charlotte’s frontcourt. At first the big man disappointed, but since his move to the 5, he has flourished as the roll man in a pick-and-roll player alongside Batum and as a rim protector. His mobility and speed as a big has always been his best asset, but it wasn’t as effective when he was used as a power forward. As a center, he usually has the advantage over his counterparts.

His growth as a pick-and-roll player may be the biggest surprise to Zeller’s evolution. Over his career, he has struggled at times as a finisher. Some of it was due to his relatively short wingspan — when compared to his height — and lack of explosion off two feet. Even when he had point-blank scoring opportunities he would often fail to convert them when met with any kind of resistance. He only managed a 52.3 field goal percentage in the restricted area during his rookie year, per NBA.com.

In light of his height and athleticism, it’s easy to see how that can be viewed as underwhelming. But after incremental growth and being partnered with an accomplished playmaker like Nicolas Batum, Zeller has become dangerous around the basket. Last season, he scored 1.22 points per possession as a roll man and hit 60.9 of his attempts around the bucket. The Hornets are only a few games into the season, but Zeller is sporting a 73.3 field goal percentage in the restricted area. While this is an example of small sample size theater, it is still encouraging.

If his development as a finisher isn’t enough to earn him some praise or at least the benefit of the doubt, his transformation into a rim protector should. He is a little unorthodox with his approach, using his body to challenge shots instead of his hands, but he gets the job done most of the time. Although Zeller won’t put up numbers in terms of blocked shots like Williams or new teammate Roy Hibbert, he is still effective.

Opponents who were less than 6 feet away from the rim shot 5.7 percentage points worse when Zeller was their primary defender last season. So far this year, opponents are shooting 26.6 percentage points worse in similar circumstances. Again, this is due to the small sample size, but it may hint at the possible leap as a defender he is capable of.

Putting aside Zeller’s skills, this move was ultimately about avoiding a bidding war. If the situation dragged out to the summer, the Hornets risked having to match a significant offer sheet from a determined suitor for Zeller. It was wise for Charlotte to avoid an outcome that compromised its already scant cap space situation.

By almost any indication, this deal is a win. The Hornets get a young, productive player that still has potential to unlock without having to go too deep in their pockets. Many teams would hope to be in Charlotte’s place.

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