CHARLOTTE – Cody Zeller isn’t a small man, standing 7-foot tall and weighing 240 pounds.
But the Charlotte Bobcats want to see the rookie power forward become stronger.
Coach Steve Clifford said Zeller needs more “functional strength” in his hips, core and back if he’s going to have a bigger impact at the NBA level.
The Bobcats selected Zeller with the No. 4 pick in the 2013 NBA Draft with the hope that he would become an impact player right away and compete for a starting spot with Josh McRoberts.
That hasn’t happened yet.
Instead, Zeller has settled into a backup role for Charlotte, averaging five points and 3.8 rebounds in 16.7 minutes per game. At times, like Wednesday night against Los Angeles Clippers forward Blake Griffin, he has been pushed around in the low post on defense.
Clifford said the Bobcats haven’t lost confidence in the former Indiana star, but stressed Zeller needs “a good summer” to become stronger.
“Guys come in and they can lift, but to play well at this level... Hey, when Blake Griffin hits something, normally he goes straight (to where he wants to be) and the other guy goes that way,” Clifford said.
Zeller said building strength is something he plans to work on in the offseason, but in the meantime will do the best with the tools he possesses.
“I’ve always been undersized,” Zeller said. “Even when you’re not the strongest guy you need to play strong. It’s outworking your guy, using advantages you do have. Obviously I can put on some weight, but I’m never going to be 280 (pounds), one of those guys.”
Clifford said that while Zeller has “exceptional ability” and lauds his basketball IQ and work ethic, he said some of that hasn’t shown through on the court because of his lack of strength.
Until Zeller becomes stronger, Clifford said he isn’t going to push him to do more than he’s capable of handling.
So while other top ten rookie draft picks like Victor Oladipo, Ben McLemore, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Trey Burke are averaging more than 23 minutes per game, Clifford said Zeller might have to be content with making the most of his 16 minutes per game.
Clifford said he doesn’t believe in playing Zeller just for the sake of gaining experience.
“With so many guys, their confidence is just shot because people think that by throwing them out there they get better,” Clifford said. “I don’t agree with that. I want a role that, one, he earns and, two, that he can play well in.”
Clippers coach Doc Rivers said he knows transitioning from college to the NBA isn’t easy, but he has seen Zeller play and is confident he has the ability to succeed at the professional level.
He said he expects Zeller will improve in the second half of the season and even more next year once he has had a chance to play against opponents multiple times.
“It’s just tough, the speed and the size alone is so difficult,” Rivers said. “And the higher the (draft) pick, the more you’re a target. I think he’s had some good games. He’s been up and down, as you’d expect. ... But this league is hard. It’s hard when you know the league, let alone when you don’t know the league.”
Zeller certainly isn’t the first top 10 pick to struggle to find his way in the NBA.
This season’s top pick, Cleveland’s Anthony Bennett, is averaging only 2.4 points per game and 10.4 minutes.
Oladipo, Zeller’s college teammate and the No. 2 overall pick, has excelled as a rookie averaging 13.7 points in 31.8 minutes, but No. 3 pick Otto Porter is averaging just 1.8 points in 9.7 minutes per game.
Of the top 10 rookie draft picks, Zeller is fifth in minutes played per game.
The 21-year-old Zeller said turning pro has been a “learning process,” but feels like he’s improving.
He also said he’s embracing his role.
“I’m not getting the stats, but I understand what the team needs,” Zeller said. “We’ve got Big Al (Jefferson) inside. We’ve got Kemba (Walker). I do a lot of the dirty work – be an energy guy. That’s what coach wants from me and I embrace my role. I’ll do whatever it takes to win.”