Like a colonoscopy, I’ve been putting this off for too long, and now I’ve got to get it taken care of: Cody Zeller is a disaster. He’s an overflowing toilet that causes an electrical fire that burns down a movie theater that’s only showing The Lone Ranger. Truthfully, I’ve been concerned since he first touched the ball opening night against the Houston Rockets and looked up with a quizzical expression on his face, as if someone had just handed him a toy monkey playing the drums and asked him to come up with 5 uses for it. So I’ve been trying to give him the benefit of the doubt, but he hasn’t gotten any better, which is troubling considering that he’s on a small market team that feels less pressure than John Daly coming out of a men’s room.
Let’s start with the shooting numbers. Actually, let’s not. God, I just looked at them. (deep breath) Okay, if you’ve been watching Zeller play, first of all: sorry; second of all, you know what he does: he takes long-range two’s from above either elbow or dead-on. And he’s utterly horrendous at it. NBA.com’s shot chart clocks him at a squalid 23.6% from that area, which comprises 33.5% of his “shooting.” In fact, the only thing worse than when he takes that shot is when he doesn’t and tries to drive to the rim, where he finishes 46.55% of the time. To give you an idea of how bad that it is, picture a hemorrhoid oozing puss. No, just kidding. Picture Ramon Sessions, who’s 9” shorter and seemingly cannot get a layup to go down without the use of a taser. Even little Ramon Sessions is ahead of Zeller with a (still awful) 47.71% shooting percentage at the rim. Plus, Sessions gets fouled an impressive 52.4% of the time, whereas Zeller gets fewer calls for fouls than Mel Gibson gets for acting gigs. That’s mostly because Zeller’s drives are slow and mechanical; you could set them to one of those old-timey songs played over black-and-white montage footage of printing presses cranking out newspapers with headlines like, “JAPS SURRENDER!”
Okay, so anyway, his shooting is not only bad but also vaguely racist. Is there anything working offensively for this guy? He’s actually not horrible in the pick-and-roll, per Synergy Sports, but he only runs it about 18% of the time (compared to the nearly 30% his time devoted to those atrocious spot-ups—it’s like they’re a bad charity). He’s a natural fit to run pick-and-rolls with Kemba Walker, so if coach Clifford could figure out a way to switch their style, that would be a start. The problem is that Zeller’s playing time is about evenly distributed with Walker and Sessions, who as we saw before only knows how to drive to the rim and miss layups. It’s a similar story on offensive rebounds: when he gets them, Zeller’s solid at putting them back in or at least getting the foul. It’s that “when” part that’s the kicker. Zeller’s only grabbing 8.4% of the boards on offense, which is just putrid for a 7-footer against power forwards (hell, it would be mildly embarrassing for a 6-foot North Korean against Dennis Rodman). It’s a combination of weak upper body strength, short arms, and a long-time habit of hanging out by the 3-point line and waiting for Victor Oladipo to start the mighty IU fast break. Finally, Zeller’s assists and turnovers more or less cancel each other out to produce a sad little 9.25 PER.
And you know that mysterious ability that some players have to make the team around them better, even if the stats don’t show it? Zeller doesn’t have it. The team’s a net -8.2 points worse per every 100 possessions with C-Zeasy on the court, which is tied for—and it was only matter of time before he appeared in a column like this—Bismack Biyombo for worst among the team regulars (to be fair, only one player from the Bobcats doesn’t have a net rating right now, and that would be Brendan Haywood, which I don’t think counts). On defense, Zeller basically mimics the rest of the team: he’s generally decent in isolation but is victimized by long-range spot-ups (which makes it odd that he’s so clueless about the same play on offense—he’s a great argument that one can’t learn by watching alone). 82games.com has him defending power-forwards to a 17.9 PER, which has been his primary spot on the team.
Which takes us back to the original observation: Zeller’s primary spot should be next to Biyombo on the bench, because his play has been scraping along the bottom like Wall-E through the apocalypse without going up at all. His TS% numbers for Nov-Dec-Jan are 43.1%-42.6%-45.9%. By comparison, a power forward like Brandon Bass—who epitomizes the phrase “middling”—has a TS% of 52.9%. The only good thing is that Zeller’s minutes have taken a commensurate cut: from 18.6 MPG in November down to 14.5 so far in January. If coach Clifford can’t play Zeller to his natural strengths—transition baskets and pick-and-rolls—then he’s not going to play him…which I applaud, by the way, because the 2014 draft looks less and less like a draft worth tanking for every day. And even if it is worth tanking for, is this team really one player away from being a power in the Eastern conference? Christ, the Bobcats narrowly escaped Orlando last night, even when the Magic didn’t have Nickola Vusevic, a man who is capable of smothering Al Jefferson with less effort than Chief gave to McMurphy (while earning about an eighth of Big Al’s pay). I’d rather the guys we already have start playing well—or at least better, which is what’s failing to happen with Zeller.
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