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NBA PM: Zeller Trying to Live Up to College Hype

Cody Zeller was a top-four pick, but he’s fighting to live up to that billing in his third season in Charlotte.

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Zeller Trying to Live Up to College Hype

When Cody Zeller was a sophomore at the Indiana University, he and the rest of the Hoosiers rolled through the United Center as a team to watch IU alum Eric Gordon’s visiting New Orleans Hornets play against the Chicago Bulls. It was by no means Zeller’s first time strolling the halls of a professional basketball arena—Indiana plays plenty of big buildings and Zeller was at McDonald’s High School All-American—but it was happening at a time when the then-top draft prospect in the country was just starting to realize a career in the NBA was going to be for him.

“I do remember that game,” Zeller said. “It’s crazy how far I’ve come since then because it’s always been my dream to play in the NBA. I didn’t know how realistic it was, even at that point when I was playing at Indiana and a big-time recruit. Sometimes even now I have to remind myself that I really am doing this for living. I am playing in the NBA.”

Zeller, for those who haven’t been keeping score, is the third of his ilk to dress for an NBA team. Luke, the eldest son, spent 16 games with Phoenix in 2012-13, and middle son Tyler, with the Boston Celtics, now is in the midst of his fourth NBA season.

As the youngest, Cody credits a lot of the success he’s seen in his life to growing up with two rather large and talented siblings.

“It is crazy just because I got beat up growing up, whether it was basketball or fighting over the last piece of food at dinner or something,” Zeller said. “Luke reminds me that he can still beat me in a shooting contest. Ty also likes to rub it in when his team beats me here and there. There still are plenty of nuggets in there to remind that they are my older brothers.”

In fact, because both brothers graduated from college, Zeller struggled a bit with coming out after only two years. The praise was much higher for him at that point than it had been for Tyler and especially Luke, and that proved too tempting to resist.

“I learned a lot and looked up to my brothers,” he said. “Both of them went four years at college, and even when I was just heading into my freshman year, even though I was a McDonald’s All-American, I still figured I’d go all four years, as well, just because Luke and Ty were in the same spot that I was.

“It never seemed real to me until about halfway through my freshman year when I started getting asked if I was going to leave early. Before then, it honestly had never even crossed my mind. I loved playing in college. I wouldn’t give up those two years for anything.”

Zeller’s parents, after seeing their older two children get through four years of school, could have been a stickler for the younger sibling to do the same, but with his dream at his fingertips and plenty of money to be made, they acquiesced. It also didn’t hurt that Cody wasn’t all that far from graduation, even after only two years at Indiana.

“My parents supported me either way, but that was a big reason I came back for my sophomore year, because at that point I was on pace to graduate in just two-and-a-half years,” Zeller said. “I’m still taking classes now, I was only 20 credit hours away when I left, so that helped convince them a little bit. I’ll finish my degree eventually, and they know it’s always been my dream to play in the NBA.”

Of course, now that Zeller actually is in the NBA, a lot of the hype that surrounded him as an elite talent four or five years ago has dropped off considerably as he’s struggled to make a big impact his first few seasons in the league. While he has improved his scoring efficiency and points per game in each of his three seasons, he still has yet to average double-digit points or seven boards per night. Charlotte would like to see more from their former top-four pick, and while Zeller is working to improve, he’s the first to admit that there have been some struggles for him early on.

“The hardest part is that you’re dealing with someone great every night,” Zeller said. “In college you just have a couple of big match ups every year that you can really get up for, but the rest of them are non-conference games against nobody. Now you’ve got to get into a rhythm every night. You’ve got to have a short memory because good or bad, there’s a good chance you’ve got an All-Star coming right back up the next night.”

Still, he feels like he’s making steady progress, and that Michael Jordan will get his money’s worth out of him.

“I’ve gotten better each year, gotten more comfortable and confident,” Zeller said. “Hopefully we can start seeing some more wins because my entire career nothing has been more important to me than wins. I want to impact winning however I can.

“I’m still playing for the love the game even though I’m getting paid for it. It’s a pretty sweet deal because I still love playing basketball and competing at the highest level… Hopefully we can get ourselves back into the playoffs this year.”

That gets ever-more realistic as Zeller grows as a pro. He’s made plenty of progress since that college visit to the United Center back in 2012, and his optimism suggests he and his team will make plenty more before it’s all said and done.

Joel Brigham is a senior writer for Basketball Insiders, covering the Central Division and fantasy basketball.

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