LAS VEGAS – Cody Zeller‘s personal timeline doesn’t seem to be in sync with his team’s. And that not based simply on the fact that his 2014 Summer League experience began four days after the Charlotte Hornets’.
Zeller’s brother Tyler, recently traded from Cleveland to Boston, got married over the weekend, so the Hornets’ 7-foot center/forward had permission to show up late for the team’s slate of games in the desert. But the tardiness needs to end now, because Charlotte is growing weary of waiting for Zeller.
After the Hornets used the No. 4 overall pick on Zeller in the 2013 Draft, he proved to have a more prolonged learning curve than they had expected. He averaged 6.0 points, 4.3 rebounds and 17.3 minutes. Some things clicked as the season progressed, but he shot 42.6 percent and was no factor in the playoff sweep to Miami.
Now, with versatile and valued Josh McRoberts gone from Charlotte’s front line, Zeller is being counted on to contribute far more. Beginning, like, yesterday.
Though he wasn’t even ready for today.
“He played like he just came off the plane,” said Patrick Ewing, Hall of Fame center and the Hornets assistant coach who worked Charlotte’s 95-72 spanking by New York’s summer squad. Zeller scored 18 points on 6-for-13 shooting in nearly 31 minutes, but those points are misleading; by halftime, he had just six points and zero rebounds in 16 minutes. Charlotte was getting thumped 62-31 and dominated on the boards, 19-5. So yeah, Zeller made most of his impact in garbage time.
Ewing was as honest in his assessment as Hornets head coach Steve Clifford is when talking about the big guy from Indiana – actually, the roster now has two, with rookie forward Noah Vonleh arriving with the No. 9 pick last month.
“We need for [Zeller] to do it on both ends, not just look to score,” Ewing said. “I told him a couple times, ‘If we’re gonna go to you and you don’t have anything, and there’s a man right there, pass the ball to the open man.’ [Play] the way that he’s gonna have to play during the season. Even though this is summer league, this summer league is important to all three of those guys – him, P.J. [Hairston] and Noah. We still need for them to make plays.”
Zeller, 21, didn’t share the sense of urgency. In fact, he sounded a little above the fray for what goes on at Summer League, as if a gentleman of his breeding needn’t overdo it this week.
He might want to rethink that stance.
“Summer league is no indication of how the team or individually how you’re going to be in the season,” Zeller said. “Everyone is trying to use it to get better at this time of year. But for me, I’ve got two or three months till the beginning of the season.”
Zeller sounded like he had to handicap his game Monday so the hopefuls and wannabes playing with him could keep up. “It feels like I’m going back from making the adjustment from the NBA back to college now,” he said. “I’ve got to take a second and slow down, and try to help guys along.”
Sounds nice of him, but Zeller has no time to lose. There already are rumblings in Charlotte that the momentum of last season, off a 43-39 record and playoff berth against the Heat, may be lost with McRoberts’ departure and the inability to pry restricted free-agent Gordon Hayward away from Utah. Clifford relied on McRoberts for stability and smarts whenever his talented but inexperienced squad lost its way. In signing with Miami, he left a hole bigger than his 8.5 points, 4.8 rebounds and 4.3 assists.
It’s largely on Zeller and Vonleh to plug it. Otherwise they both might get to pad their numbers in far too many games with garbage time.
“He’s gonna have to grow up real fast,” Ewing said of Zeller. “With Josh not being there, I’m not sure who our starting four man is going to be … but we need for him to improve in all the areas where he didn’t do well last year. He has to continue to rebound and block shots – he’s 7 foot tall – running on the break, developing a go-to move. Just all the things a normal basketball player’s supposed to have.”
Told that Zeller doesn’t seem to be fast-tracking this project – he’s counting on the team’s chemistry and character to fend off slippage, while focusing this offseason on his offensive moves – his coach for the day Monday nodded.
“There’s time,” said Ewing, one of the hardest-working big men in league history. “Hopefully not too long.”