How Cody Zeller’s likely return should boost Charlotte Hornets versus Chicago Bulls

Rick Bonnell
·3 min read

Cody Zeller says there’s nothing about his left hand that should keep him from playing as much as the Charlotte Hornets need him.

“No restrictions,” said Zeller, listed as probable to play against the Chicago Bulls on Friday following a month-long recovery from a fracture. “The bone is healed. I can’t make it worse by playing.”

Thursday was four weeks since surgery to repair the broken left ring finger that Zeller suffered in the season opener Dec. 23. That was the minimum end of the projected recovery time.

Zeller fully practiced Wednesday and Thursday. He said it was a blessing that the Hornets had a six-day break from games this week, allowing for a long 5-on-5 scrimmage Wednesday to test out his hand and conditioning. He’s confident about both.

“I feel really good — fresh,” Zeller said. “I’ll be a little rusty (in timing). In the scrimmage yesterday, I was sometimes a step slow or a step late. It’s also my teammates getting used to me again.”

Zeller said based on the scrimmage, he shouldn’t have to favor his left hand in games. He anticipates some soreness, but he’s already tested whatever puts his hand most at risk.

“I was trying to swipe down (on the ball) on defense and wrestle guys in the post to see what made it sensitive,” Zeller said. “Once I got on the court, I don’t want to have this in the back of my mind, like, ‘Oh, this is gonna hurt!’ “

Zeller broke the middle finger on his right hand in Dec. 2018. Since he shoots right-handed, he thinks returning from this injury will be simpler, because his left hand is only affected on defense and catching passes.

Center depth was stressed without Zeller

While it’s unclear how much coach James Borrego will play Zeller initially, it’s obvious that Zeller’s injury stressed Charlotte’s depth at center.

Ten-season veteran Bismack Biyombo became a starter and has averaged 27 minutes per game — far more than he logged in the past seven seasons. When Biyombo sat, Borrego and the Hornets played small ball, with P.J. Washington at center and Miles Bridges at power forward. Those two have played together about 14 minutes per game.

Borrego has chosen not to use either of the two rookie big men — Vernon Carey and Nick Richards — as rotation players. Borrego has used a lot of zone — nearly a quarter of the defensive possessions — which allows whoever is playing center for Charlotte to stay closer to the rim.

While the Hornets have been a top-10 defense this season, rebounding continues to be a major flaw. For the second consecutive season, Charlotte is last in the NBA in defensive-rebounding percentage. As Washington said Wednesday, the return of a 7-footer can only help that.

It isn’t that Biyombo has played poorly as a starter. Rather, that the heavy minutes he was playing seem unsustainable with the Hornets pursuing their first playoff spot in five seasons.

Using Zeller and Biyombo interchangeably, with the small-ball front court as an option when matchups allow, is the plan Borrego intended. Zeller’s recovery allows that to happen again.