Who Should Start at Power Forward for the Charlotte Hornets?
This offseason was a busy one for the Charlotte Hornets' front court
Intriguing prospect and 2014 lottery pick Noah Vonleh was traded to the Portland Trail Blazers, and Frank Kaminsky was drafted ninth overall to take his place. Additionally, Spencer Hawes came over in a trade with the Clippers and Tyler Hansbrough was signed this offseason, and both could see time at the power forward spot this upcoming season.
Jefferson's 2014-15 season didn't match his 2013-14 performance that earned him a spot on the third All-NBA Team, but until he shows signs of more significant decline he remains locked in as the team's starting center.
So, after a flurry of offseason moves, the question becomes, who will start at power forward for the Hornets? Kaminsky and Zeller are probably the main contenders, but Hawes and Hansbrough loom as options themselves. Head Coach Steve Clifford may see things differently, so it's unclear how this situation will unfold by opening tip.
Breaking Down the Competition
Because we don't have any prior NBA data on Kaminsky it's very difficult to evaluate just how good he will be his rookie season. However, the safe bet is that he won't be very good because almost all rookies are not very good.
It is important to give Kaminsky consistent minutes so that he can develop, but for a team like Charlotte that is hoping to make a playoff push, that doesn't mean you need to force him into the starting lineup. Starting him with Jefferson also might not be a great idea, as neither are known as particularly good defenders or rim protectors, and Charlotte's defense could really struggle without a more athletic big in the lane.
Among college players who played at least 800 minutes last year (Kaminsky saw 1,311 for Wisconsin), his Defensive Win Shares of 2.9 actually ranked 13th in the nation, and his Block Percentage (4.5%) ranked 26th. He's not as bad defensively as the general perception might be, but if he has to compensate for Jefferson, whose 3.4 Defensive Win Shares ranked him 24th among players qualified for the minutes leaderboard last year. Jefferson's Block Percentage (3.3%) also ranked 24th.
Kaminsky could easily be Charlotte's best option at power forward a couple years down the road, but for his rookie season at least, it is unlikely he will be deserving of a starting spot given that Jefferson is such an integral part of the offense, commanding a 14th-ranked Usage Rate of 26.3% last year.
According to our nERD metric, which indicates how many wins above or below .500 an average team should be with a given player as a starter during a full season, the starter should actually be Hansbrough.
His nERD of 2.6 was a full win above Zeller's 1.6. Both significantly outpaced Hawes' -2.8. The difference between Hansbrough and Zeller isn't huge, though, especially considering that Toronto was a more efficient team than Charlotte last year in terms of nERD.
According to Basketball-Reference's Box-Plus Minus metric (BPM), Zeller edges Hansbrough with a BPM of 0.3 compared to Hansbrough's -0.5. Furthermore, ESPN's Real Plus-Minus (RPM) metric gives Zeller an edge of 4.30 versus Hansbrough's 2.46.
Further contextual factors also reveal why Zeller should be the Hornets' best option.
The most obvious reason to give Zeller the job is his age. He turns 23 in early October. Hansbrough will be 30 in November. Aging curves traditionally project players to improve up until age 27 or 28 before beginning their decline. Zeller is on the right side of that equation, and it is logical to think that while he will improve upon last year's performance, Hansbrough might decline somewhat.
Thinking about the team fit gives Zeller a more evident advantage.
Starting the slow-footed and ground-bound Jefferson at center means Charlotte needs some sort of interior presence next to him in the front court. Zeller is taller and more athletic than Hansbrough, and it translates to their on-court production. Zeller's 2.6% Block Percentage isn't fantastic, but it is solid for a power forward, and it trumps Hansbrough's 1.1%.
Zeller also outpaced Hansbrough in Defensive Real Plus-Minus, 3.23 (which ranked fifth among power forwards) to 1.79 (19th).
Because Jefferson doesn't provide much rim protection for a center, having Zeller around to clean things up is crucial to Charlotte's defensive success.
On the offensive end, Zeller is also a much better fit due to his athleticism and ability to play in pick and roll. Between Kemba Walker, Nicolas Batum, and Jeremy Lin, Charlotte's perimeter is filled with players who like to play pick-and-roll, and Zeller's ability to roll down the lane with speed and finish above the rim makes him the best option in pick-and-roll situations. Last year, however, among 64 players who were the roll man at least 100 times on a pick-and-roll, Zeller's 0.95 points per possession ranked just 35th. He did, though, play this role on 30.5% of possessions, tops among the high-volume players. Nobody else topped 27.6%.
Due to his fit and his potential to improve this year, Zeller should be seen as Charlotte's de facto starter at power forward. Just how much he can improve could go a long way in determining his team's success. His most obvious problem at this point in his career is his inability to score efficiently, as his 53.0 True Shooting Percentage from last season is very poor for a big man. In order to improve his efficiency, Zeller needs to sharpen up his mid-range game, as he only shot 35.3% from 16 feet and farther last year.
If he can bump up his scoring efficiency on the inside and from the perimeter in addition to improving upon his already impressive defense, Charlotte may end up surprising some teams by making a deeper push this season than last.