How Cody Zeller Mastered the NBA's Most Popular Play

Yaron Weitzman@YaronWeitzmanFeatured ColumnistDecember 5, 2016

INDIANAPOLIS, IN - FEBRUARY 26: Cody Zeller #40 of the Charlotte Hornets looks on against the Indiana Pacers during a game at Bankers Life Fieldhouse on February 26, 2016 in Indianapolis, Indiana. The Hornets defeated the Pacers 96-95. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using the photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)
Joe Robbins/Getty Images

NEW YORK — The pick-and-roll has morphed into the NBA's most popular play during recent years.

Offensive attacks, such as the one belonging to the Charlotte Hornetswho run pick-and-rolls more frequently than 25 of the league's 30 teamsare built around it. Defensive schemes are predicated on being able to stop it. The play has catapulted a number of guards, like Charlotte's Kemba Walker, into stardom.

Walker could credit his favorite pick-and-roll partner Cody Zeller for a few of his career-high 23.8 points per game, and he does, but that'll have to wait:

"He sets illegal ones," Walker told Bleacher Report, with a laugh. "But I love it when guards get hit. It happens to me all the time, getting hit by other bigs. It's fun to see other guards deal with the same thing."

Zeller is averaging five screen assists per game, the third best mark in the NBA this season. He's doing so despite averaging just 25 minutes, 10 less than Washington Wizards center Marcin Gortat, whose 6.4 screen assists per game lead the league.

Screen assists take into account all versions of picks, but it's Zeller's potency as the big man in the pick-and-roll that has salvaged his career and transformed him into one the NBA's most valuable role players. 

The statistic, which the NBA made public last postseason for the first time, tracks the number of baskets in a game created by a pick. There are a number of tricks to the craft, Zeller said, but the one he most enjoys is standing strong and absorbing the contact.

"Most big guys want to get to the rim really quick and slip out," Zeller says. "What I'll do is hold it a little longer and try to get away with as much as I can without being called for it.

"The guards (on other teams) don't like that."

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Zeller's enthusiasm for deploying all the strength packed into his seven-foot, 240-pound frame is where his knack for springing jitterbugs free begins. But there's more to Zeller's skill set than his zest for bruising opponents.

Brute strength isn't enough. Timing is key. Angles must be precise.

When he first entered the NBA, Zeller, by his own admission, didn't appreciate all the technique that goes into laying an effective pick. In college and high school, he viewed screening as a way to thrust himself into the offense.

He was always faster than everyone as big as him and bigger than everyone as fast as him. The combination of size, talent and athleticism garnered him the title of Indiana's Mr. Basketball in 2011. He then went on to Indiana University, where he played two seasons before selected No. 4 overall by Charlotte in 2013.

But the NBA served as wake-up call. Like so many high school and college stars before him, Zeller quickly learned that many of the tricks and skills that propelled him to that point were futile when facing the best players in the world. He averaged just six points on 42.6 percent shooting as a rookie. , He didn't fair much better during his sophomore campaign.

"In college, I could score just off my athletic ability, but in the NBA, everyone is the same as me, if not more athletic," Zeller said. "So I had to figure out different ways to score."

"He's always done a good job of screening and getting me open," said Walker, who is averaging a career-high 23.9 points per game this year and exactly one point per possession on pick-and-rolls, a mark better than 84 percent of the league. "And recently he's gotten a lot stronger. I think that's helped him a lot as well."

Hornets head coach Steve Clifford has seen the entirety of Zeller's evolution since he assumed his perch in 2013. Clifford, an NBA lifer, had previously spent five seasons as an assistant coach with the Magic, where he had helped build an offense around Dwight Howard's prowess as the big man in the pick-and-roll.

"In Orlando, those guys with the ball were good players, but so much of our pick-and-roll game was based off Dwight's screens," Clifford told Bleacher Report. "He was such a great screener—that's where it all starts."

The goal was for Zeller to one day play a similar part. First, though, he had to learn all the intricacies that go into generating offense using solely your body instead of the ball. It took a few years, but today, thanks to his screening savvy, Zeller has become a key cog on a Hornets team competing for a playoff spot.

"He has a very well rounded pick-and-roll game," Clifford said. "He's worked hard with (Hornets assistant coach) Pat Delaney on his short rolls, his finishing and his ability to pass the ball to the weak side when the defense comes early. But his screening is a big part of it."

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The primary goal when setting a pick, Zeller said, is to force the guard defending the dribble over the screen. This is at the top of the mental checklist Zeller runs through as he jogs from the paint up to the ball.

"If the guard goes under, then there's no rotation from the defense," he said. "That rotation is what we're looking for."

Clifford expanded on this more: "When you don't let the guard get under, you have a better chance of making two have to guard the ball-handler.

Zeller then stood up and made his way over to court to demonstrate.

"It's all about getting the right angle," he said, standing above the three-point line over the right wing. "So you want to try set the screen on the lower half of the defender's body, like this." He shifted, placing his toes at a 45-degree angle and his left shoulder, on the outside half of his body, pointing towards the left corner of the court.

"If you do this, they can't get under."

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Pushing defenders over the screen, Zeller said, was more difficult before WalkerZeller's primary pick-and-roll partnerfixed his shaky jumper. This year, Walker is shooting a career-high 42 percent from deep, but he's just a 34 percent three-ball shooter for his career.

"A lot of guys want to get under, especially when Kemba wasn't shooting well a couple of years ago," Zeller said. "So that was always a big emphasis."

But sometimes the guards slither their way under the screen. That leads Zeller to Step No. 2. 

"I'll turn around and flip it around—we call it 'twist'," he said. "You just flip it around. There I'm one step lower and closer to the basket. They can't go under." 

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"He's really good at turning and getting me to come back the way if we miss it the first time," added Walker. 

The results speak for themselves. Zeller is now more involved in the Hornets offense than ever before. He's averaging a career high 10.5 points per game on a blistering 59.1 percent from the field, with many of those looks coming as the roll man following a screen.

But the most telling stats are how much more potent the Hornets have been with Zeller on the floor: They're outscoring opponents by 13.1 points per 100 possessions with him in the game and are 18.6 points per 100 possessions when he plays versus when he sits, both team highs, per Basketball-Reference.com.

Not bad for a player rarely touching the ball. 

"It's that little stuff," Zeller said, "the stuff many fans don't recognize, but for our offense is huge."

All quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. All stats from NBA.com and accurate as of Dec. 4 unless otherwise noted.  

Yaron Weitzman covers the Knicks, NBA and other things for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter @YaronWeitzman

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