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Nuggets Newcomer: What to expect from Zeke Nnaji

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Utah v Arizona Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

As the Denver Nuggets return to training camp, it’s important for fans to become reacquainted with their favorite team. During a shortened offseason, the Nuggets made several player transactions, more than usual, and the resulting roster looks very different than it did before. 10 players on the 2019-20 roster have returned for the 2020-21 season, and they are:

Jamal Murray - point guard

Monte Morris - point guard

PJ Dozier - combo guard

Gary Harris - shooting guard

Will Barton - wing/forward

Michael Porter Jr. - forward

Bol Bol - forward

Paul Millsap - power forward

Vlatko Čančar - power forward

Nikola Jokić - center

That leaves seven roster spots, each of which the Nuggets have filled with a player hoping to move the Nuggets closer to winning their first championship in franchise history.

Today, it’s time to introduce Nuggets fans to Zeke Nnaji.


Zeke Nnaji Player Profile

Position: Forward/Center

Previous Team: University of Arizona Wildcats

Measurables: 6’11” height, 245lbs, 7’1” wingspan

Statistics

Per Game Table
Season School Conf G GS MP FG FGA FG% 2P 2PA 2P% 3P 3PA 3P% FT FTA FT% ORB DRB TRB AST STL BLK TOV PF PTS SOS
2019-20 Arizona Pac-12 32 32 30.7 5.6 9.8 .570 5.4 9.3 .586 0.2 0.5 .294 4.8 6.3 .760 3.1 5.5 8.6 0.8 0.7 0.9 2.2 2.4 16.1 8.40
Career Arizona 32 32 30.7 5.6 9.8 .570 5.4 9.3 .586 0.2 0.5 .294 4.8 6.3 .760 3.1 5.5 8.6 0.8 0.7 0.9 2.2 2.4 16.1 8.40
Provided by CBB at Sports Reference: View Original Table
Generated 12/4/2020.

How did Nnaji get to the Nuggets?

After just one very successful year at the University of Arizona which saw him named Pac-12 freshman of the year and a member of the first-team all-Pac-12, Nnaji elected to turn pro despite never getting the chance to play in the NCAA tournament due to its cancellation on account of COVID-19. By the end of March Nnaji declared for the NBA draft and set to work in Las Vegas training with Joe Abnussar, a well known training commodity among NBA circles. Despite his success at Arizona, Nnaji from the get go profiled as a late 1st round to early 2nd round pick. Questions regarding his ability to play center at the NBA level given his size and whether he can develop enough shooting prowess to play power forward in the NBA caused his stock to fall a bit.

That worked out perfectly for the Denver Nuggets who had the 22nd overall pick in the 2020 draft and they used said pick to select Nnaji in the first round. Denver’s interest in Zeke was no secret. They had him on a virtual interview way back in the summer and later brought him in to do a private workout. Given the Nuggets selected Nnaji perhaps a bit higher than he was anticipated to go and also chose him first over their other first round target, R.J. Hampton, it’s fairly safe to assume that Zeke was the Nuggets plan with the 22nd pick going into the draft. Once again, Tim Connelly got his man.

Highlights

What to expect from Nnaji

Like Hampton, Denver Nuggets fans should probably expect to not see a ton of their new rookie big this season. The Nuggets, and the NBA in general, have a long history of not playing mid to late first round picks in their first year. This is particularly true for a team with championship aspirations like Denver. I expect in terms of depth chart for the 4/5 slot Nnaji is at minimum third, behind Nikola Jokic and Isaiah Hartenstein, but he also has to deal with the likes of Michael Porter Jr., Bol Bol, JaMychal Green and Paul Millsap, all of whom slot in as power forwards who can also play some small ball 5.

Still, given the NBA is navigating a pandemic without a bubble this season, there is a better chance this year than perhaps any other that a rookie like Nnaji sees some playing time. He will also likely get some burn in the G-League as most all Nuggets rookies do. On the long term, Nuggets fans should hope that Zeke becomes the backup center of the future and potentially even a starting power forward next to Jokic.

His primary strengths are on the glass, which is something the Nuggets struggled with last season and became an even bigger issue with Mason Plumlee’s departure in free agency. Nnaji’s ability to defend multiple positions, including on the perimeter when he gets involved in a switch, make him a strong candidate to at least get some playing time next to Nikola. If he can develop his shot further, and there’s plenty of reason to believe he will given his 76% free throw shooting at Arizona, then he has the potential to really blossom in a Nuggets uniform.

Even if he doesn’t become a switchable four with three point range, Nnaji can still serve a role in Denver for a long time. Fact of the matter is, if you can hold your own for 12-15 minutes on the floor at the five then there is a spot for you on this roster. If all Zeke ends up being is a big who is strong on the glass and doesn’t hurt you on defense while also having just enough shooting to keep the defense honest, something he essentially already is, then he slots in perfectly to back up Nikola. Now in the NBA and the beneficiary of professional level strength training, it shouldn’t be a problem for him to bulk up a bit to better handle NBA level centers.

Fun fact

Zeke’s full name is Ezekiel Tobechukwu Nnaji.