Finally healthy, Cody Zeller is ready for new role with Hornets

Mitchell Northam

CHARLOTTE --- When asked about center Cody Zeller’s health at Hornets’ media day Monday, Charlotte head coach James Borrego deferred his answer to the big man, who would be entering the interview room later in the afternoon.

Borrego did say: “Cody told me that this the best he’s felt in years.”

“That’s pretty true,” Zeller said a few minutes later. “I’ve just had some bad luck.”

In his six seasons in the NBA, all in a Hornets’ uniform, Zeller has played more than 62 games in a single season just twice: as a rookie, and in 2015-16. He’s had bumps, bruises, breaks, tears and soreness in his hands, knees, quads and ribs. Last year he played 49 games and just 33 the year before.

But this season, Zeller is healthy, fit and ready to play for a Hornets team that will likely rely heavily on his ability to score, defend and make plays in the paint.

"I feel good. It's been a long summer of trying to get healthy and stay healthy,” Zeller said. “Fingers crossed no freak injuries like my hand last year. Hopefully, that's behind me."

Things will be different for Zeller and the Hornets this year though. For starters, his longtime teammate and friend Kemba Walker is no longer around, having signed with the Boston Celtics this past off-season. Zeller did his best to keep Walker in the Queen City, even putting up a street-side lemonade stand to raise money to keep him. His customers though, neighborhood kids, were tough bargainers.

“He’s going to be good in Boston and like Boston, but it sucks for me a little bit,” Zeller said of Walker’s departure. “Even in September workouts, when we had most of our guys here, it just felt like something was missing, like our team wasn’t there… The plane trips, the bus rides, will be different without Kemba. I spent six years with him and most of my minutes on the court were with him. We played well together.

“He was a great teammate. He did a lot for the community. He loves Charlotte. This had become his home.”

Zeller was drafted by the Hornets just two seasons after Walker was. Together, they made two playoff appearances and fooled dozens of defenses on pick-and-rolls. When Zeller was healthy and Walker was at his best, they were a formidable duo. In Zeller’s NBA career so far, 77.1 percent of all of his shots were assisted.

How the ball moves will change for the Hornets this year too. While much of the previous plays were started by actions from Walker, everyone will have a hand in creating offense this year. And that includes Zeller, making chances for his teammates out of the post. Last season, he averaged a career-high in assists at 2.1 per-game.

"I'll play a lot different role (this season), because so much of our offense ran through Kemba with high pick-and-roll actions,” Zeller said. “Now, I'll be able to create action for Miles, Bacon and even Terry. It'll be a little different for me and the team getting used to a different style. I think we’ll play faster, which is good for me, much more my style. It should be exciting to watch."

In Zeller’s most recent season where he was the healthiest, in 2016-17, he connected on 72.7 percent of all the shots he attempted before the 15-second mark on the shot clock.

“My style is more guys touching the ball, side to side. Kemba made it work and he’s a great player, but it’s our job now to do it as a group. The ball’s not going to stick,” Borrego said. “When we play fast, Cody is the guy that sets the tone for us with our bigs. He runs the floor extremely hard. We just got to keep him healthy.”

While he is an effective scorer and serviceable facilitator on one end, the 240-pound, 7-foot Zeller is also a solid defender. He’s averaged 1.2 blocks and 1.1 steals per-36 minutes over his career, and opposing ball handlers can usually expect some contact from him when they come into an area he’s defending.

"Shot-blockers are one thing in this league, but I think there's different ways to build a good defense,” Zeller said. “With a good team defense and good pick-and-roll coverages, I don’t think you necessarily need a good shot-blocker at the rim, although it certainly helps, obviously. It will be a group effort. We have athletic bigs.”

Zeller conceded that his physical style of play has contributed to his injury woes, but don’t expect him to start shying away from contact any time soon.

“Absolutely, but I’m not going to change my playing style,” Zeller said. “That’s in my DNA.”

In 2016-17, Zeller connected on 71.1 percent of his shots when was guarded tightly, where a defender was zero to four feet away from him. Over his career, he’s hit 62.8 percent of his shots that are less than three feet from the basket. He's also a career 74 percent free throw shooter. So, yes, indeed, Zeller is at his best when's drawing contact and finishing in the paint, using his toughness to shake defenders off.

Zeller said the Hornets started giving him scheduled time off last year to keep him fresh -- a game here, a practice there. That will continue this season.

“Obviously I want to be healthy and available for as many minutes as possible," Zeller said. "But it’s a little bit of a balance, trying to get my rhythm, trying to work on my game a little bit, but also resting up.”

Later this season, the Hornets will play a game overseas, taking on the Milwaukee Bucks on Jan. 24 in Paris, France. Zeller's looking forward to that, but he might need teammate Nic Batum to communicate for him to get around the city.

Zeller says he took French classes for four years in school, but didn’t retain most of it. With a laugh, he says that the one phrase he remembers is “j'aime le basket” which translates to, “I love basketball.”

The Washington, Indiana native’s admiration for the game is as well documented as his injury history is. He and the Hornets hope that an addition to the latter doesn’t keep him away from the game he loves this season.