CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Cody Zeller's unplanned move to center is paying major dividends for the Charlotte Hornets.
When Al Jefferson went down last season with an injury, coach Steve Clifford asked the 7-foot, 240-pound Zeller to fill in by shifting from power forward to the 5 spot. Zeller played so well that Clifford decided to keep him there even after Jefferson returned.
"It was kind of a freak thing how it happened and I don't think anyone was planning on it," Zeller said Monday. "But I'm glad it worked out that way."
The Hornets liked what they saw from the former Indiana University standout so much last season they rewarded him with a four-year, $56 million contract in the offseason. They didn't re-sign Jefferson.
Zeller spent the offseason working at improving his skills as a center. He's still a work in progress midway in his fourth NBA season, but is averaging career highs in points (10.8), rebounds (6.3) and blocks (1.2) per game.
And yet it's hard to completely quantify Zeller's worth in statistics.
He's the type of player who does the little things — setting a solid screen to free up Kemba Walker or Nic Batum, tapping out an offensive rebound to a teammate or hustling back on defense to prevent a transition basket.
What he lacks in physicality against the league's taller and stronger centers he makes up in hustle — something that at times tends to result in a trip to the training room.
"I don't think there are many guys willing to break their nose like he has," Batum said with a laugh on Zeller's uncanny knack for taking shots to the face. "I mean that guy is diving on every ball and he doesn't fear anybody. He's facing guys like (Hassan) Whiteside, DeAndre (Jordan), (Rudy) Gobert and Dwight Howard every night. He's been huge for us."
He's been thrilled with Zeller's progression since taking over as a starter, particularly his "rolling" in the pick-and-roll game for the Hornets (15-13).
"That sounds like a small thing, but it's not," Clifford said. "He has a good feel for screening, which helps the ball handlers."
Clifford would like to see Zeller's rebounding numbers improve, particularly on defense because the team is not particularly tall.
But that appears to be getting better.
He has 21 rebounds in his past two games after averaging 6.1 in his previous nine December games.
"Outside of Mike (Kidd-Gilchrist) and Nic (Batum) we don't have guys at their position who are good at that, and it's a critical part of the game," Clifford said. "We have had a couple games when we played good enough on defense (to win) but lost because of our rebounding."
Zeller is working hard to improve his mid-range jump shot and become a more consistent scorer.
He took for jumpers Saturday night against the Atlanta Hawks.
The Hornets know if he can make them consistently it will force opposing big men to step out and guard him, thus opening up more scoring opportunities for his teammates.
"He isn't hesitating to take those shots, which is good," Batum said. "It will help his game a lot. We all know he can run and he can dunk on people. He has a gift to play this game. And if he can shoot like that..."
Charlotte lost its chance to acquire a dominant center in 2012 when it failed to land the No. 1 overall pick in the NBA draft lottery — and the rights to Anthony Davis — despite finishing 7-59 the season before. It was a gut-wrenching break for the team at the time, knowing that talented centers like Davis don't come along very often in the NBA.
Zeller, the No. 4 overall pick the following year, may never develop into the type of player Davis has become, but it's pretty clear the Hornets like what they have in him.
"I mean, he's a 5-man," Clifford said. "The way the league is now he's a 5, at both ends of the floor. And it definitely suits him better."