The center position in the NBA is currently undergoing a renaissance period. With the exploding popularity of small ball and the increased emphasis on three-point shooting, there were concerns that the league’s behemoths had become obsolete. The continued excellence of veterans like Marc Gasol, DeMarcus Cousins, or Dwight Howard combined with a rise of young center/forward hybrids (think Anthony Davis, Karl Anthony-Towns, and Kristaps Porzingis) has proven that those fears were unfounded.
He’s fallen by the wayside and doesn’t receive the same amount of praise as many of the league’s other centers, but Cody Zeller has emerged as one of the league’s best young big men.
It’s easy to ignore Zeller. He plays on a small-market team with a record floating just above .500, has missed some time due to injury, and doesn’t have the same flashy numbers as some of his contemporaries. Taking a deeper look at his play, however, shows just how vital he is to his team.
Zeller’s raw stats (11.9 points and 5.3 rebounds per game) aren’t eye-catching, but they don’t tell the whole story. The team is leaps and bounds better on both sides of the floor when he plays:
When Zeller sits, the Charlotte offense is bottom-five, and the defense is barely in the top half. When he’s on the court, the offense would be just behind the Warriors for the league’s best and the defense would be fifth-best in the NBA. Those numbers likely overstate his value a little bit, but they certainly show a pattern that is meaningful on some level.
The Big Handsome is most efficient offensively in transition. He can’t quite leap out of the building, but he is fast and athletic enough to finish plays on the fast break, which he does very effectively. That’s especially important for a Charlotte team that sometimes struggles to score in the half court.
His half court contributions to the offense shouldn’t be overlooked, however. He’s the primary screener on most of the team’s offensive sets and scores 1.071 points per possession as the roll man in a pick-and-roll, according to Synergy Stats. That number doesn’t exactly jump off the page, but it’s steady and efficient, well within the upper half of NBA players.
?Even when he’s not directly involved in the play, Zeller finds ways to contribute. He’s smart at cutting to get open and finishing when he gets the ball. He’s also effective after shots go up. He gobbles offensive rebounds at a rate of 8.4 percent, an impressive number considering that Head Coach Steve Clifford emphasizes transition defense over second-chance points. And when Zeller snags an offensive rebound, he’s good at putting the ball in the basket: his 1.455 points per possessions on put-back attempts lands him just outside of the league’s top 10, though he hasn’t had as many attempts as some other players.
Zeller isn’t an elite rebounder or shot blocker, but he is capable on the defensive end, particularly when defending pick-and-roll plays. Clifford generally plays a more conservative defensive scheme, opting to drop his big men back on screens rather than trap the ball-handler. Zeller does that well, using his quick feet and long arms to get in a good position and cut off passing lanes. He’s not perfect, but teams only score .684 points per possession in pick-and-roll plays with the 24-year-old as the big defender.
The Indiana product doesn’t draw the same attention as many of the league’s other centers, and it makes sense: he’s not a superstar, and his team is struggling. Even if Charlotte continues to lose and their early-season victories were just an aberration, it’s time to give Cody Zeller the attention and respect that he deserves.