With limited resources in the free agency portion of this off-season, Portland Trail Blazers President of Basketball Operations Neil Olshey needed some bargain signings. It was apparent the bench pairing of Carmelo Anthony and Enes Kanter should be changed up heading into next season. With the first move of Olshey’s free agency, he was able to sign big man Cody Zeller to a minimum contract. Of course, this isn’t a move that jumps off the page as a needle-moving transaction to most fans, but I believe this pick up has a chance to be Olshey pulling a rabbit out of his hat. Zeller brings a lot of things to the table that most people might not know.
Let’s start at the beginning, Zeller grew up in Washington, Indiana. He is the youngest of three brothers who also played in the league (Luke and Tyler). Growing up in Indiana, the three brothers were big Pacers fans. His parents both worked day jobs. Every year or so, the boys got something they all wanted—to see an NBA game live! It wasn’t easy because they lived two hours away from Indianapolis. So when they could, they’d treat their sons to see the sport all three boys would end up playing. Zeller reminisced on this in an interview with Adrian Wojnarowski recently. “I thought it was the coolest thing ever to go watch an NBA game. It was my only chance to see an NBA game live.”
He would take that love of the game to high school, where he was a great player leading Washington High School to 3 state championships. He also won Mr. Indiana Basketball in 2011. From there, he went on to play an hour away from home at Indiana University. There he would see great regular season success with fellow 2013 draftee Victor Oladipo. However, their teams would fail to make it past the Sweet 16.
Zeller was drafted as the 4th pick in the 2013 NBA Draft by the Charlotte Hornets. Charlotte had hoped he’d give the franchise a true #2 option playing with Kemba Walker. While Zeller didn’t exactly turn out to be that player, he was hardly a “bust.” He did see some struggles to start off his career. In his Wojnarowski interview, Zeller stated, “I never felt like the organization made me feel like I had to live up to the number 4 overall pick right away. But it was really challenging.” He went on to say, “It made me, for the first time, humble on the court. There were a lot of games where (teams) were calling isolations at the scorer’s table. I mean, I got my butt kicked every night I went out there.”
By being drafted so high and being more of a scorer in high school and college, you would expect him to start to overcompensate when he struggled on the court, but you’d be wrong. Thanks to some guidance from the head coach at the time, Steve Clifford. He got the advice that has kept him playing in the league. Zeller said, “Coach Clifford told me the way to get on the court is by rebounding, playing defense, and setting good screens.” He reiterated his feelings on his role in the league as well. “There’s only a handful of guys on each team that are going to score all the points.” Zeller went on to say, “There’s a certain niche for guys that come in and play hard every night, who want to do all the dirty work that nobody wants to do. You put your nose on the line and dive on the floor. Eight years later, that’s still what I believe—what I bring to the team.”
He’s not wrong either; he’s still that player he described. His style of play just fits in so seamlessly with the style of play new Blazers Head Coach Chauncey Billups has talked about. His hard screens should be able to get shooters like Damian Lillard, CJ McCollum, Norman Powell, and Anfernee Simons open shots. He can use his athleticism and get into the paint. Zeller is a good rebounder, and as a center, he doesn’t make the flashy pass but the right one. That will give the Blazers 48 minutes of good to great passing from the center position, not to mention the newly acquired Larry Nance Jr’s passing abilities as well. Adding into all of that is an important piece: Zeller wants to play on a winning basketball team.
He talked at length with Adrian Wojnarowski on his podcast about his desire to be on a winning team. With him saying how his favorite stretch of basketball he’s played was his 2016 playoff series against the Heat. That team took the Heat to 7 games and was even up 3-2 in the series at one point. They unfortunately fell, but it only fed Zeller’s desire to be on a championship quality team. Before he signed for the veteran’s minimum with the Blazers this off-season, this is what Cody said he wanted from a team: “First of all, I want to win, and I think it aligns with what I bring to the team and everything I stand for.” He went on to say, “I think I can have a huge impact as a backup center in free agency. So I can be either a starting center on a fringe playoff team or a backup center on a really, really good team. Competing for a top 4 seed in their conference wanting home court advantage.”
I believe this Blazers team can give Zeller what he’s looking for. Portland has the potential to be a team that is greater than the sum of its parts. A scrappy team that plays hard every single night. The exact type of team to highlight the play of someone like Cody Zeller.
Despite early struggles in his pro career, he’s become a better person and a better player because of it—someone who’s stayed humble and dedicated to his craft. When the losses piled up and he started to get down, he would remind himself of when he was a boy in Market Square Arena getting to watch the Pacers. Zeller said, “I think of somewhere in this arena 10-year-old Cody Zeller sitting in the very top nose bleeds. Where his parents have worked months to afford five tickets in the nosebleeds, this is their one chance to see an NBA game live.” He went on to say, “So there’s plenty of times when I kinda have to pinch myself and realize like I play basketball for a living. This is pretty amazing; this is what I’ve always dreamed of.”
Welcome to Rip City Cody, you’ll be a fan favorite in no time!