ASHEVILLE, N.C. (AP) — Charlotte Bobcats coach Steve Clifford said he needs rookie Cody Zeller to play well in order for his team to improve.
At the same time Clifford wants the 7-footer to ease into his pro career and not feel the weight of expectations of a player picked fourth overall in last summer’s NBA draft out of Indiana.
Finding common ground between those two extremes will likely be a season-long work in progress for the new coach and his new player.
After Zeller’s strong showing in the NBA’s Summer League and an impressive first week of training camp, Clifford is convinced he has a power forward that can help the Bobcats for a long time.
But Clifford said it will be a process, joking that “He’s so young, he’s still learning the rules.”
“He has a lot of talent and he’s a hard worker,” Clifford said. “Cody’s the kind of guy the more you’re around him and watch him play the more excited you get about his possibilities.”
The former Indiana star played two years for the Hoosiers before turning pro.
He just turned 21 on Saturday.
After a strong freshman season some scouts thought he struggled against better competition last season, so being picked fourth by the Bobcats was a bit of a surprise to some — particularly with big men like Kentucky’s Nerlens Noel and Alex Len of Maryland still available.
Clifford said a strong showing at a pre-draft camp in Chicago convinced the Bobcats Zeller was the right pick.
In Summer League play in Las Vegas, Zeller showed the athleticism to play forward and the ability to run the floor while averaging more than 16 points and nine rebounds a game — very similar to his numbers he put up in college when he averaged 16 points and seven rebounds per contest.
“That gave me a lot of confidence,” said Zeller, the younger brother of two NBA players. Tyler, the former North Carolina center, is with the Cleveland Cavaliers, and Luke played last season with the Phoenix Suns.
“But learning to play in the NBA, it’s a long process. You quickly realize how big and strong everyone is, and it takes time to get used to that.”
Clifford has been pleased with Zeller’s play in training camp, which concludes with Tuesday’s preseason opener against the Atlanta Hawks in Asheville, N.C.
And now it is a matter of figuring out his role and how much Clifford wants to expose a rookie to the rigors of NBA play around the basket.
“What you have to do with a younger guy like Cody, is you don’t put limits on him, because he is going to be a big part of this team from the beginning,” said Clifford.
“But you watch him, see what he is comfortable with, and let his role develop from there.”
Zeller, who is competing for a starting job with former Duke star Josh McRoberts, said he feels like he and Clifford are on the same page.
“The NBA game is so different and there are a lot of adjustments. Everyone on the floor is so talented, five guys on the court that can hurt you,” Zeller said. “There’s no room for error, and that’s what I have to keep working on.
“That’s the beauty of training camp. The games haven’t started yet, so I can make mistakes and learn from them.”
Recently signed free agent center Al Jefferson, the Bobcats’ free-agent pick-up who is expected to team with Zeller to improve a subpar inside game, likes what he sees in the rookie.
“He can do some special things,” said Jefferson.
Jefferson said the only other former rookie he’s seen with as high of an IQ as Zeller is Minnesota Timberwolves’ big man Kevin Love.
“He can shoot it, run the floor, do a lot of different things. I’m going to enjoy playing with him,” Jefferson said.
And Clifford is looking forward to coaching him.
“Al at (center), Cody at (power forward), I think we will see a lot of that,” Clifford said. “Not only the talent they bring, but they are both high-character, team-first guys, so they will add to the team chemistry.”