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Trail Blazers 2021-22 Season Preview: Cody Zeller

Portland fans are bound to like their new unsung hero.

NBA: Preseason-Golden State Warriors at Portland Trail Blazers Troy Wayrynen-USA TODAY Sports

The countdown is on to the start of the 2021-22 NBA regular season for the Portland Trail Blazers. Blazer’s Edge will be running our season preview from now until the Blazers tip off the year against the Sacramento Kings on Wednesday night. Today we look at an under-the-radar acquisition who may not look great himself, but should make everybody else a little better: 6’11 center Cody Zeller.

Cody Zeller 2020-21 Stats

AGE: 29 EXPERIENCE: 8 Seasons

CONTRACT: $1.7 million expiring contract

9.4 points, 6.8 rebounds, 1.8 assists, and 0.4 blocks in 20.9 minutes per game over 48 appearances.

55.9% shooting from the field, 14.3% from the three-point arc, 71.4% from the foul line on 2.5 free throw attempts per game.

The Role

Portland’s roster is (over-) populated with minimum-salary players this season. It’s a necessary side-effect of the monster contracts owned by the team’s top stars. But Cody Zeller is a minimum-contract player in name only. Unlike most of his $2-million-or-less teammates, Zeller has played an active, mostly-consistent role. After being selected fourth overall in the 2013 NBA Draft, he’s spent eight straight seasons with the Charlotte Hornets, starting almost 60% of the games in which he appeared during that time.

There are some caveats. Even though he’s started, Zeller has never averaged 30 minutes per game in a season. Most of his career has been spent below the 25-minute mark. Over the past four years, he’s played in 188 of a potential 318 games, a health rate of about 60%. Injuries and low minutes have not justified the pick that was spent on him way back when.

Fortunately, that’s Charlotte’s problem. Portland gave up nothing but a roster spot for Zeller. They’re not looking for him to change the franchise, or even start. They just want a quality, experienced center who will hold the fort off the bench when Jusuf Nurkic needs a rest or gets in foul trouble. Zeller fits that description perfectly.

Honestly, it’s hard to find anything Zeller does wrong. He’s a willing defender, an upgrade over last year’s backup center, Enes Kanter. His rebounding numbers aren’t at Kanter’s phenomenal level, but his offensive rebounding isn’t that far off, about 34 of Kanter’s per possession rate. Cody Zeller and “great scorer” will never be used in the same sentence, but he knows his role. Almost 90% of his shots last year came within 10 feet of the hoop. He converted 60% of his two-point attempts overall. That aggregates to a fine efficiency rate. He’s not going to win a game for you with his point production, but if you get him the ball in his wheelhouse, he’ll convert. He can even pass a little — bonus!

Screen setting is Zeller’s major talent. He’s going to start freeing teammates the minute he hits the floor. Ask not whether Cody Zeller scores, ask who scores around Cody Zeller. Then you’ll see the value in his court time. Every time one of the Blazers guards gets free on a pick, remember they’re getting away with minimum salary for the guy who made that possible.

Areas for Improvement

Health. Andre Iguodala smashed Zeller’s nose in Portland’s first preseason game and we haven’t seen him since. He’s slated to return in the regular-season opener against Sacramento, but you know what? Staying on the floor is a real issue.

Other than that, who’s going to complain about the contributions Portland gets from a Swiss Army Knife backup center? Assuming they don’t put him in the corner to shoot threes, Zeller will look fine doing his Cody Zeller things and the Blazers will be better off for it.

Final Thoughts

Combine his defense, hustle, screen play, and general gritty work and Zeller is destined to become one of the more popular players on this roster. He’s everything old-school Portland fans love. Prepare to welcome your next cult hero in 3...2...1...

Also See Our Previous Season Preview Posts:

Damian Lillard

CJ McCollum

Robert Covington

Larry Nance Jr.

Norman Powell