After the Charlotte Hornets used the fourth overall pick in the 2013 NBA Draft on Cody Zeller, a lot was expected out of the former Indiana star.
Expectations were high, especially once some of the players selected after him surprisingly broke out as stars including Giannis Antetokounmpo, CJ McCollum and Rudy Gobert. But he is a fantastic player on the pick-and-roll and runs the floor better than most big men in the NBA. He may not be a household name, but he is much more effective than many realize.
Zeller averaged 10.3 points, 6.5 rebounds, 1.6 assists, 1 steal and 0.9 blocks per game last season. These numbers may not stand out, but a deeper dive shows why he is such an vital piece of Charlotte’s team and that it’s important to judge a player on more than a first glance.
“Cody might be extremely undervalued by other teams but he is very valuable to us,” Hornets power forward Frank Kaminsky said of Zeller. “His intelligence on both ends of the floor allows our team to play better. If you look at his screening, it always allows for Kemba [Walker] to get separation, which sets up the rest of our offense.”
For a traditional big, Zeller is a monster in transition. He scored 1.50 points per possession in the open floor, the fifth-best mark in the NBA among guys who had at least 50 transition opportunities. The Charlotte center can read opposing defenses well and has mastered the dribble handoff.
To show how dynamic his game is on both sides of the ball, opponents shot 58.7 percent against Zeller near the basket. This was an above-average mark among centers who faced at least 900 shot attempts last season.
He makes plenty of hustle plays, as evidenced by the fact that 40.7 percent of his rebounds were contested. It’s also worth noting that Zeller is among the league leaders in deferred rebounds, which means he is often in the right place but a teammate actually pulls in the board instead.
Expect recently acquired Dwight Howard to have more rebounds than Zeller next season. But if either Zeller or Howard are not healthy next season, the other can help offer stability. This was a problem for the team last season.
When Zeller did not play, as mentioned on this Reddit thread, the Hornets won just three games and had 17 losses last season. Thirteen of the 17 losses were by single digits so he would have been helpful. Meanwhile, the Hornets were 33-29 with him in the lineup last year.
“A lot of people who watch basketball probably don’t notice his full impact on a game,” Kaminsky said. “But he is a vital part of what we are trying to accomplish.”
Zeller’s game log is a fascinating case study of a team falling apart with a prolonged, unexpected 20-game absence of an undervalued player.
Another way to understand this is by measuring the on-off court factors using NBA MATH’s FAT Calculator. We plugged in his on-court variables below.
When he played for Charlotte, the Hornets played at the pace of a team with a .571 winning percentage. That kind of success would’ve been the No. 5 overall seed in the Eastern Conference last season. In fact, the Hornets were 10.4 points per 100 possessions better with Zeller in the game.
We also used the NBA FATS Calculator to measure the team’s pace with him off the court. As you can see, the team is significantly less impressive. Their projected winning percentage of .382 is five games worse than their actual record from their 2016-17 campaign.
Other advanced measurements of impact also show Zeller has legitimately high value. These stats may not be the end-all, be-all for evaluating talent but they are still an interesting examination.
For example, ESPN’s Real Plus-Minus has him as one of the Top 5 centers in the NBA. The only players at his position who had a higher measure last year were Nikola Jokic, Rudy Gobert, DeAndre Jordan and DeMarcus Cousins.
In fact, his real-plus minus (No. 27 overall in the league) was higher than NBA stars like Damian Lillard, Gordon Hayward and Paul George. It was nearly identical to Otto Porter Jr. (who signed a max deal this offseason) and ahead of 2017 Western Conference All-Star Marc Gasol.
Looking at his net rating – which is defined as the “team’s point differential per 100 possessions while he is on the court” – he once again finished in the Top 10 when filtered to examine centers who played at least as many games as Zeller.
Considering net rating does favor those who play for a better team, it’s worth mentioning every player who was above Zeller made the postseason.
And while others may be known for a flashier style of play, Zeller is athletic. Check the highlight reel of his dunks, which shows he does more than just blend in with his team.
Perhaps his most marketable asset is his reasonable contract. Zeller signed a four-year, $56 million contract extension with Charlotte in October 2016. He has three more seasons on his current deal, though he has said he has already earned money than he would spend in three lifetimes.
When adjusting for pace, Zeller averaged 18.6 points, 11.8 rebounds, 2.9 assists, 1.8 blocks and 1.7 steals per 100 possessions last season. Oklahoma City Thunder center Steven Adams averaged 18.6 points, 12.6 rebounds, 1.8 assists, 1.6 blocks and 1.8 steals per 100 possessions.
Adams will make $22.4 million next year while Zeller will make $12.5 million during the 2017-18 season.
Here’s how Adi Joseph described the deal for Zeller at the time (via Sporting News):
“He’s a 24-year-old athletic 7-footer. Those don’t come around every day, and if he stays healthy, those three descriptors alone can keep him useful. This contract bids on him improving beyond that level, but not by much. It’s easy to imagine Charlotte’s books looking pretty nice in two years, the product of savvy moves by a salary-cap veteran.”
ESPN’s FiveThirtyEight CARMELO NBA Player Projections for Zeller show he could be worth much more than the aforementioned deal.
They list him as a “borderline All-Star” with a five-year market value at $139.5 million. This would make an average annual value of $27.9 million – which would give him a max contract.
For comparison, his 1.8 Value Over Replacement Player (VORP) based on this projection would be worth approximately $16 million per season. This figure is a bit more realistic than the above metric, though still higher than what he will actually make on his base contract of $12.5 million next year.
If he continues to improve, which he has since entering the league, his bargain contract will become even easier to build around moving forward for the Hornets. Malik Monk will be on a rookie deal plus Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and 2017 Eastern Conference All-Star Kemba Walker are both on fair contracts too.
Even though Zeller is not as well known as some of his peers, his value becomes obvious once you look past his basic counting stats and understand his game.