Nenê has overcome a lot in his seven year NBA career: a language barrier in his early days in the league, a major knee injury, testicular cancer, and most recently, a broken forearm suffered during Game 6 of the Western Conference Finals. After playing in just 81 regular season games in a three season span from 2005-2008, Nenê was back with a vengeance last season and put up career numbers with 14.6 points and 7.8 rebounds per game. The Big Brazilian is the Nuggets' heavyweight contender with a lot still to prove.
When you talk about Nenê, well, there is plenty to discuss.
For starters, you can talk about when he was drafted. Looking back at the 2002 draft the Nuggets notoriously selected Nikoloz Tskitishvili with the 5th overall selection ... bypassing proven college talent Caron Butler and the talented but controversial high school kid Amar'e Stoudemire. But Denver, as is often the case with trades, had the New York Knicks select a player for them at the seven spot to complete a deal that was presumably already in the works.
The trade ... New York received 2001 All-Star Antonio McDyess, the draft rights to the 25th overall pick Frank Williams, and a 2003 second round pick (Maciej Lampe from Poland at 30th overall). Denver received Marcus Camby, a washed up Mark Jackson, and the rights to Maybyner "Nenê" Hilario. As a fan, I was very concerned that the Nuggets had just taken two rookies that I'd never heard of ahead of my favorite college player.
The trade was a risk for both teams as New York was hoping McDyess - a career 17.6 points and 8.7 rebounds guy at the time - would recover nicely from knee surgery that limited him to just 10 games for the Nuggets the previous season. And for the Nuggets, they were gambling that Camby would be able to help the team down the road after he recovered from injuries that limited him to just 29 games with the Knicks the previous season.
Knicks general manager Scott Layden was quoted as saying, "While we would like to thank Marcus Camby and Mark Jackson for all of their hard work over the years in a Knicks uniform, we felt this trade was not something we could pass up."
The excitement of the trade for the Knicks would quickly fade as McDyess would miss the entire 2002-03 season and would appear in just 18 games for the Knicks in his only active season with the team in 2003-04.
For Denver ... the trade quickly appeared to be more about this Nenê kid (who put up 10.5 points and grabbed 6.1 rebounds in 28.2 minutes a game his rookie season) rather than what appeared to be an injury riddled Marcus Camby. But Camby would prove his critics wrong as he played in an average of just under 69 games a season with the Nuggets over his next five years with the team.
Camby would play a vital role in the resurgence of the Denver Nuggets, while Nenê's once promising career started to unravel due to injuries and illness.
While watching any professional sports draft you'll hear the words, "upside" and "potential" above all others ... especially while watching the often unpredictable NBA draft. The words, for fans, often come with a negative connotation because more often than not ... the guy that had so much "upside" never pans out. Well, it was starting to look that way for Nenê as his body kept betraying him. Nagging injuries began piling up and you had to start wondering if the kid just wasn't taking care of his body, or if he was cursed with what in the car world is known as a lemon.
The rotation of Kenyon Martin, Nenê, and Marcus Camby had us all salivating at the possibilities on paper, but each season brought new tragedy. Who could forget that first game down in San Antonio in 2005 when Nenê checked into the game, played just three minutes, and then fell awkwardly under the hoop ... shredding his knee and ending his season.
And then in 2007, Nenê looked to be on the road back by averaging 12.2 points and 7 rebounds in the 2006-07 season ... but was diagnosed with testicular cancer and had to miss practically all of the 2007-08 campaign as he battled for his life. It appeared that the talented Brazilian was indeed given a lemon of a body. When he eventually came back to play late in 2008 I remember grabbing tickets for his first game back because I wanted to be part of the standing ovation I knew he'd receive. The Pepsi Center was rocking and you could see #31 just wanted to get back on the floor and get his latest comeback under way.
Sports are often more about redemption than anything else and I found myself wanting Nenê to succeed for a new list of reasons. The once skinny, raw, but talented Brazilian added bulk to his frame and years of worry to his young mind. He had been with the team for six seasons, but it seemed like an eternity since I'd seen him on the court. I worried that along the road to personal recovery his basketball skills had declined ... I was wrong.
Nenê came out last season and looked like a beast. He looked bigger and better than any former version of himself. He seemed to have a re-tooled game as well. He was hitting jump shots with regularity to go along with his inside game where he could finish around the rim with either hand. He put up career numbers in points, rebounds, blocks, field goal percentage, free-throw percentage, and minutes played.
Although the amount of minutes may have worn him down towards the end of the season, along with guarding bigger, but slower players ... it was easy for me to see why the Nuggets moved a speedy Nenê to center.
After the disappointing series loss to the Lakers there was a small blurb about Nenê breaking his forearm in game six. Would this set him back after such a great year? How bad was the break? We went nearly all summer without much news on the injury, but thankfully Chris Tomasson of AOL Fanhouse directed me to his story, "Does the West Have an All-Star Center?"
In the piece Tomasson breaks down the various candidates to replace Yao Ming (out again with an injury) and Shaquille O'Neal (now playing in the East) on next year's all-star team. In specifically talking about Nenê ... Tomasson wrote, "Nenê is fully healthy after suffering a broken left arm in Denver's last playoff game. He took about six weeks off, and said now his 'arm is perfect.'"
(There are some nice quotes in the article from Nenê, discussing his goals for the upcoming season ... click here.)
As we all know, #31 is going to be patrolling the middle again for the Nuggets this season. Nenê has a full season of playing center under his belt and he used his speed and superior athleticism to exploit many matchups. I like having a quicker guy down low ... I think the NBA often falls in love with size too much. There are only so many Dwight Howard type players out there and the Nuggets are taking a bit of a different approach by using Nenê's speed over some Stiffs size. It got the Nuggets to the brink of the NBA Finals a season ago and it got Nenê's career headed in the right direction.
Nenê will again be asked to mix it up with the heavyweights in the post, and while he may be more of a light-heavyweight himself, his tools give Denver a puncher's chance.