The Portland Trail Blazers are off to an up-and-down 8-8 start to the regular season, but reserve center Cody Zeller has been a consistent bright spot for the team.
His stats are modest: 5.7 points, 4.4 rebounds and 0.8 assists in 13.3 minutes per game. Yet, his impact is felt beyond the box score. In just a handful of games, the offseason acquisition has endeared himself to the hearts of Rip City faithful through his hustle and physicality.
Let’s analyze what makes Zeller valuable — and likable — in Portland, but also why he’s a much better fit than the man he replaced.
Zeller cashes his NBA checks with hustle and energy. Unafraid to mix it up in the trenches, he’s excelling at winning extra possessions on the offensive glass with a dogged pursuit of loose balls. So far this season, Zeller’s 1.4 offensive loose balls recovered per 36 minutes is first out of centers who have logged at least 100 minutes. It’s no wonder Zeller broke his nose before the regular season even began, forcing him to don a clear face mask that has become the symbol of his dorky, lovable role player swag.
The 6’11” big man uses physicality to bang for positioning, but also uses his high motor to track down balls that seem to be out of his radius or already secured by opposing players. Multiple highlights show him unloading loose balls to teammates before his momentum carries him out of bounds. On a Blazers squad that is often criticized for lack of effort, Zeller’s boost off the bench is a breath of fresh air.
Cody's hustle leads to Ant for three pic.twitter.com/kYIHTaSNFO— Portland Trail Blazers (@trailblazers) November 16, 2021
Portland’s ex-backup big man, Enes Kanter, is renowned for his work on the offensive glass. Last season, Kanter’s 5.8 offensive rebounds per 36 minutes ranked first in the league among players with at least 1,000 minutes logged. Zeller’s loose ball work shows he’s no slouch in that department either. His 5.2 offensive rebounds per 36 minutes this season is tied for third-best in the league among players with at least 100 minutes logged.
What the two big men do once they attain the offensive board is vastly different. Kanter would do his best to put the ball back in the cup, but Zeller prioritizes resetting the offense or finding open teammates for kickout threes. The difference is evident when you compare the two centers’ second-chance points per 36 minutes. Last season, Kanter averaged 6.6 second chance points per game, while Zeller is averaging just 3.4 second chance points per game this season.
On the surface, that stat appears like a weakness, but Zeller’s willingness to pass shows he’s the ultimate lunch pail worker, putting on his hard hat to bring glory for others. He has only recorded one post up all season and 87.2% of his shot attempts have come when he holds the ball for two seconds or less. He either takes his shot or keeps it moving. On the other hand, Kanter tallied 153 post ups last year and 69% of his shots came after holding the ball for two seconds or less, eighth-lowest among centers. The Blazers no longer have a mouth they need to feed at the backup center position. Zeller is content with doing the dirty work that doesn’t require the ball in his hands.
It’s a selflessness that’s likable, but also makes Zeller a better fit. With Kanter’s 153 post ups gone and a Carmelo Anthony-sized hole (218 post ups last season), Portland’s second unit is free to showcase more movement and utilize its young talent. Portland’s dead-last rank in assists per game last season (21.3) has risen to an 11th-best 23.6 assists per game, while fourth-year guard Anfernee Simons and third-year forward Nassir Little are both making the most of expanded roles with breakout seasons.
Zeller isn’t the sole reason for the youngsters’ growth and the added assists, but his commitment to a limited role is notable.
Zeller isn’t a great defender by any means. His defensive field goal percentage (58.7%) is second-worst in the league among centers with at least ten games played, although this number is deceiving early on because Zeller has contested a small number of shots compared to most centers. He’ll likely come closer to his 47.7% total last season before the end. Regardless of the stats, the eye test reveals that Zeller is a much more passable defender than his predecessor at the position. Teams aren’t obliterating Zeller in the pick-and-roll every night like some teams attacked Kanter. Zeller is nimble enough to cover ground and get to the right spot during rotations and transition defense.
An indicator of Zeller’s movement on defense is his charge total. This season, he has drawn only one charge, but last season Zeller took seven charges which was tied for seventh-best among centers and even better when considering he played only 1,005 minutes. As the season progresses, expect Zeller to earn more whistles.
Besides energy and hustle, Zeller’s other main job is also of the less-glamorous sort: Setting screens to launch Portland’s pick-and-roll offense and free space for shooters off the ball. It’s a vital part of the game plan that Zeller is holding down. He uses his big frame and physicality to hunt for contact and generate open looks, ensuring there’s no large drop-off in Portland’s screen game when Jusuf Nurkic catches a breather. Nurkic is tied for first in the league in screen assists per 36 minutes with 8.0. Out of centers who have played at least 10 games, Zeller is ninth-best in the league with 6.2 screen assists per 36 minutes and sixth-best in screen assist points per 36 minutes with 15.5.
After Zeller lays the lumber, he’s capable enough as a finisher and playmaker on the roll to be trusted by Portland’s star guards. The nine-year vet brings to Portland the toughness to finish strong or draw contact. Zeller’s first points in a Blazers uniform set the tone for the type of aggression he’d bring to the table. Zeller will pack it every time if he can and not bother with layups.
HELLO & WELCOME TO PORTLAND, CODY pic.twitter.com/6ZZFUvE63s— Portland Trail Blazers (@trailblazers) October 21, 2021
When Zeller doesn’t have a dunking lane, he’s got enough finesse and savvy footwork to still convert scoring opportunities. His offensive arsenal is by no means spectacular, but it’s stable around the rim.
With scrappy hustle and dependability, role players like Zeller are invaluable to winning. Their energy gets the crowd going which in turn gets their teammates going to create game-swinging plays.
The type of hustle Zeller provides can kickstart a team that’s playing flat or give a deadly shooter the extra open look that unlocks his rhythm. The hustle can be the difference between whether a 7-0 run stalls out or continues with a soul-crushing second-chance bucket.
There are many little ways Zeller can make a big impact. At just $2.4 million for one year, the veteran has proven to be a great pickup at a low price.