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Zeller getting comfortable with NBA life

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Follow Pete DiPrimio via Twitter at www.twitter.com/pdiprimio.

Ex-Hoosier playing to high-draft-pick status

Thursday, July 18, 2013 - 7:00 am

Cody Zeller is not Nerlens Noel or Alex Len. Let's get that out there. The “Big Handsome” nickname aside, Zeller doesn't stir visions of NBA championships, as, say, LeBron James did when he arrived in the NBA.

Big deal. The former Indiana All-America can play. He wins. He works hard. He does the right things on and off the court. He is, in almost every way, including that NBA multimillion-dollar contract, the guy you'd love to date your daughter.

And then marry her.

And then take the whole family to Hawaii for two weeks for the wedding after buying that loving family new Ferraris.

And then …

Sorry.

Anyway, it's just summer league ball, but Zeller is proving he was worth the No. 4 pick in last month's draft courtesy of the Charlotte Bobcats.

Noel and Len, by the way, aren't proving anything at the moment. They're sidelined while recovering from injuries suffered last season. Noel, the former Kentucky standout, went No. 6 and plays for Philadelphia. Len, who played at Maryland, went No. 5 to Phoenix.

In the last two summer league games in Las Vegas (where sometimes what happens there doesn't stay there) the 7-foot Zeller dominated. He had 21 points (6-for-12 shooting) and 13 rebounds against Dallas. He followed that with an 18-point, 10-rebound showing against the New York Knicks. He displayed nifty baseline spin moves for baskets along with his usual full-throttle running. He moves the ball, makes good decisions and plays solid defense.

“He's so smart,” Charlotte coach Steve Clifford said. “He's a lot more skilled than people understand. That intelligence and skill level, I hope, translate quickly (to the NBA).”

It took Zeller one game to adjust. In his pro debut, he had eight points (going just 4 for 9, including an airball) and five rebounds. Overall he averages 13.7 points and 9.3 rebounds, which is close to what he averaged for his two-year career at Indiana (16.2, 7.3).

“I try to learn from each game and try to get better,” he said. “The style of an NBA game is a lot different than college. The spacing is different. The guys out there, the level of competition. I'm trying to get used to all the things like that.”

Granted, doing this against summer league competition isn't the same as doing it against the NBA's veteran best, but let's not quibble over the big point, which is Zeller is showing he can make major rookie impact. He's led Charlotte to a 2-1 pool record and the No. 5 seed in the new 22-team Las Vegas Tournament.

“The summer league is for seeing what works and what doesn't to be ready for the regular season,” he said.

At least early on, Zeller isn't anchored in the paint. He's being used in high-post sets to capitalize on his good outside shooting, something he rarely displayed at Indiana (which was more a factor of his comfort level rather than a coaching edict). He faces up from the perimeter and establishes midpost position. In short, he uses the versatility and energy that makes his pro ceiling so high, even if not everyone buys into it yet.

Clifford has given Zeller leeway to get a feel for the pro game -- different rules, better players -- the coach rarely gives to rookies. He was especially impressed with Zeller's Dallas performance.

“He did everything. He moved the ball. He made great decisions. His rebounding was great. He went and got it.”

Zeller has said he doesn't want to over-think the NBA game, that he's played the sport basically his entire life, so just go with his instincts. He described himself as a “rookie trying to figure things out” and that early on there's going to be a lot of “up and down.”

Charlotte is a young team with a youthful foundation of Zeller, ex-Kentucky standout Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, ex-Vanderbilt star Jeff Taylor and Bismark Biyombo (from the Congo). There is potential here, although given the franchise's dismal recent record (its 7-59 mark in 2012 set a league record for futility), you never really know.

But that is for later. For now, Zeller has comfort to develop, skill to build, experience to achieve.

Oh, yes. And somebody's daughter to marry.

This column is the commentary of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of The News-Sentinel. Email Pete DiPrimio at pdiprimio@news-sentinel.com.