If I had reviewed everyone’s performance mid-season, Zeller would be a subtle contender for a grade of “B+” before injuries and a shooting slump somewhat side-tracked his season.
Even though Henderson replacing Stephenson and Kidd-Gilchrist missing much of the start to the season are also in play here, Zeller taking Marvin Williams’s starting power forward spot is a huge reason why we improved on defense. From Zeller’s first start back in November, the 28th to the point he went down in early March we were the second best defensive team in the league at 98.4 points given up per 100 possessions. That’s second only to Atlanta. Before the switch we were one of the ten worst outfits on defense at a defensive rating of 105.5.
Zeller has managed to turn his mobility into being a very good all-around defender who can both protect the paint and defend out at the perimeter. He’s fast enough to hedge numerous pick-n-pops in a row and never give the stretch-4 an opportunity to open himself up for a long-range look.
If faced up against more of a bruiser at the power forward spot, Cody has the combination of speed and strength to meet the pick-n-roll ball handler and then recover back to stop the subsequent drive by his man.
Opponents have shot 49.0% at the rim when Zeller is there protecting it, a solid mark which ranks him just above a renowned rim protector in Bismack Biyombo (49.1%) and is in the same territory as Marc Gasol (49.4%) and Anthony Davis (48.6%). It’s a noticeable improvement over last year’s rim protection stats (56.3%) and the overall eye-test that suggested that opponents could use their strength to over-power the slender rookie to at least draw a foul on Zeller down low. A drop in personal fouls per 36 minutes also encourages such a perception (down from 4.3 last year to 3.8 this season).
Cody also seems comfortable when supposedly being left in a mismatch after switching in the pick-n-roll. That doesn’t apply just to checking small forwards but it’s also true about situations where Zeller is left on the smaller and quicker guards. Him being able to stay in front fast drivers like Isaiah Thomas can be a real defensive weapon that could/should be used more often late in the shot clock.
Out of the big men core of Biyombo, Zeller and Vonleh, Cody is the least likely to ever play significant minutes at center. However, he has toughened up since his rookie year and will diligently battle the league’s behemoths.
It doesn’t work all the time. In Memphis Z-Bo threw him around like a rag doll, but that didn’t stop Cody from getting back up and battling with Randolph the next time down the court. Whether it was fighting for rebounding position or guarding Randolph in the post, like in the following video, Cody is dedicated not to give up against stronger post players.
Moreover, if you look at the post defense stats for the year, Zeller has been more successful at it than Biyombo has. Zeller has given up 0.04 points less per one possession (Cody is at 0.80, while Biz is at 0.84), yet has faced more such attempts.
His performance on offense has been way more uneven. Our attempts of turning Cody into a pick-n-pop threat haven’t worked out that great so far. For what it’s worth, Zeller was indeed more precise in field goal attempts between 15 and 19 feet, the area from which he attacks the most (if you exclude attempts at the rim), than he was in his rookie year. He converted 39.0% of such shots, which mostly come in screen-and-roll action (that number from 15-19 feet was at a depressing 29.6% last season).
Zeller’s two-month long slump in January and February did leave a bad taste in one’s mouth though.
Such spurts of awful shooting make you wonder whether the experiment will ever work out and makes you question his future as an offensive option.
By now it seems like Cody on the offensive end is likely to be just a good finisher at best. He seemingly hasn’t caught up to the speed of the league and doesn’t have the handles to regularly create for himself, something that Noah Vonleh, per example, seems to be able to do. The following play, with which we sometimes start second halves, is a cool use of Zeller’s speed and mobility, yet it also is the ceiling of his abilities.
Zeller is capable of finishing a play where he has such an opening and all that he has to do is make a straight-line drive. In this case, good luck to all of the 7-footers out there trying to follow Cody up to the three-point line and then suddenly be ready to stop his drive.
He is just as capable of throwing up a 1/5 FG performance in 30 minutes and being invisible on the offensive end when that pick-n-pop jumper from up top isn’t falling.
If handed the ball at the perimeter, he’s attuned to searching for a dribble hand-off which then could be turned into a pick-n-roll.
Sometimes in such situations Zeller will look like a deer in headlights and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Cody understands his limitations and knows that finding a ball handler is the safer course of action. When he tries to create on his own it can get ugly.
Yet Zeller getting a bit more responsibility next season is what I would look for. As a power forward in the NBA, at some point you have to become more adept at making decisions in the pick-n-roll on the fly, when catching the ball around the foul-line area, per example, and having to read the situation in a split-second.
That’s a situation in which being able to make a pass to the wing shooter in the corner is a really valuable skill. A serviceable floater or the ability not to barrel in the guys crammed in the paint ahead of you also comes in handy.
It goes hand in hand with my concern about whether Zeller will ever develop into anything more than a “hard-working banger”, for the lack of a better term. Look, there’s skill and savvy to the way he moves on the defensive end. He had a really good season for the type of a big man who defends and finishes at the rim. And, hey, there’s no negative connotation added to that. It’s quite valuable to have a big who is capable of such tasks.
At this point though, you have to wonder about our long-term future in the front-court and how everybody’s talent meshes together. Per NBA.com, the two-man line-up of Cody Zeller and Bismack Biyombo were the best in the league in points given up per 100 possessions (91.8) among line-ups which clocked at least 300 minutes (not one hundred percent sure about this since stats.nba.com seemingly is glitching when I’m trying to establish this fact). They are the perfect defensive big men pair, one can hedge and step out to the perimeter, the other one is the rim protector.
However, such a duo turns Kemba Walker’s life into hell on offense as he has to face every kind of hedge, trap, “show” and all-out pursuit on him in the pick-n-roll. Our offensive rating (98.5) with the two of them on the court is on par with the third worst in the league (the place we finished as a team, actually).
With Biyombo still learning basketball basics, it’s up to either Cody Zeller or Noah Vonleh to become a workable option on offense. Zeller will still only be 23 next season so I’m not suggesting that it can’t happen. But at this point Vonleh seems to have the head start.
I might have given him an “A” after a couple of beers back in late December. The second half to his season was more of a “B-” or “C” though.