On June 27 of this year, Charlotte Bobcats fans waited to hear who their team would select with the fourth-overall pick in the 2013 NBA Draft. After the first three picks were announced, there was a plethora of highly touted talent left on the board, featuring young prospects like Nerlens Noel, Alex Len and Ben McLemore. Instead, the Bobcats seemingly reached to take Cody Zeller, who wasn’t projected to be picked until the late lottery.
I’ll be the first to admit that I was angrily baffled at the selection of Zeller initially. I thought it was a poor decision to not gamble on the potential of guys like Noel and McLemore to take a quality player with limited upside like Zeller. Quite frankly, I saw this as yet another gaffe in the Bobcats’ not-so-gleaming history in the draft.
From the Las Vegas Summer League to off-season workouts to Bobcats training camp, though, I’ve warmed up to Zeller. He has shown solid versatility within his offensive game, as well as a fantastic cerebral understanding of working within the team’s offense. He’s looked very much like a possible Rookie of the Year candidate.
My tune on Zeller may have become more hopeful, but he will undoubtedly be tested in his first action of the preseason. The Bobcats open up their preseason play against the Atlanta Hawks on Tuesday night and, according to a report from Rick Bonnell with The News & Observer, Zeller has been penciled into the starting lineup for the contest.
As he takes the floor for the opening tip, Zeller is going to be facing a formidable Hawks frontcourt in his first taste of preseason action. All-Star caliber center Al Horford joined by Atlanta newcomer Paul Millsap as the two Hawks big men is certainly nothing to scoff at and will give Zeller a crash-course in what he’ll be facing in his rookie year in the Association.
Millsap, who will likely be matched up on Zeller at the four, isn’t an elite defender, but he’s no slouch either. Millsap will force Zeller to mix up his looks offensively and will test the rookie’s awareness with quickness and pressure. It’ll be interesting to see how Zeller’s basketball IQ is affected in that type of matchup.
More than that, though, Zeller’s defense is going to be in the spotlight. In the Hawks’ first preseason game on Monday night against the defending champion Miami Heat, Millsap finished with 12 points on 6-10 shooting in 24 minutes of time on the floor. One of the biggest things I noticed with Millsap in the game was how active he was off of the ball. With Jeff Teague and Dennis Schroeder at point guard for the Hawks and Horford’s interior passing ability, Millsap looked to take advantage of cutting smartly and frequently to get open looks off his team’s ability to facilitate.
Millsap in the Hawks offense under new head coach Mike Budenholzer is going to be a tough matchup for most power forwards this season, but Zeller will likely be tested even further. For all of the praise of Zeller’s savvy on the floor and his offensive ability, he still has a ways to go before he’s an effective NBA defender. He understands the nuances of defense at this level, but still has to work on his positioning and rotations as a defender. With Millsap’s movement, that could be something the Hawks look to exploit. Likewise, Zeller will have the opportunity to show any improvement he’s made in that area under Steve Clifford’s emphasis on defense in training camp.
As is the case with almost all rookies, there were certainly be some rough moments for Zeller as he makes his way into the NBA, but he should be able to impress some people at times also. If he wants to get off to a good start and set the tone for his rookie year right away in the preseason, this matchup with the Hawks surely will give him the chance to do so.
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