Will “small ball” make Zeller the Hornets’ forgotten man? Not if you listen to the head coach

By Richard Walker

When Charlotte Hornets coach James Borrego recently talked about how much he wanted to go with a smaller lineup that included the 6-foot-7 P.J. Washington at center, some speculated that might mean a diminished role for veteran 7-foot center Cody Zeller.

Not a chance said Borrego in a Monday zoom news conference following the team’s third day of training camp.

“Cody is a primary starter and he’s a heckuva player,” Borrego said. “I fel very comfortable with him as our starter, our closer. He’s evolved as much as anybody on our team.”

That much can be proved quite easily.

Drafted No. 4 overall in the 2013 draft by Charlotte, Zeller enters his eighth season as a starting center whose game has constantly improved and he has the support and praise of his head coach.

Borrego says Zeller is his team’s best screen setter, a factor on both offense and defense and has continually improved his long-range shooting.

That last statement is easily supported by Zeller’s statistics over the previous seven seasons, including five as a starter.

After taking only 16 3-point attempts in his first five seasons – with five conversions – Zeller has made 24 of 97 3-point tries in his two seasons with Borrego as head coach. And Borrego expects Zeller to take – and make – more 3-point shots this season.

Zeller is in a center rotation that includes veteran Bismack Biyombo, the second-year Washington and rookies Vernon Carey, Jr., and Nick Richards.

“We’re going to play and we’re going to play small,” Borrego said. “I like the depth of our position. We’re very versatile there.”

Zeller enters the season with career averages of 8.6 points, 6.0 rebounds, 1.4 assists and 0.7 blocks per game in 419 games (252 starts). His best season came last year when he averaged career-highs of 11.1 points and 7.1 rebounds.

“I think the whole NBA has kind of shifted to being smaller and playing more mobile big men,” Zeller said. “The fact that we have depth at the 4 and 5 spot is really good.”