In an NBA season like none other it has been virtually impossible for rookies to make an instant impact. When you look around the league it has been incredibly hit or miss with rookies in terms of their production and that might have a direct correlation to what this offseason looked like.
The 2020 NBA Draft was held on November 18th with training camp and games beginning just over a month later. These rookies did not get the traditional offseason of summer league, extended training camp, and more preseason games like we are accustomed to seeing in a true NBA season.
That led to both of the Nuggets first round picks for the 2020 draft: Zeke Nnaji and R.J. Hampton having to sit out the first few months of the season just to see what it was like. Nnaji and Hampton got minutes here and there, but neither has really been able to crack the rotation, except for as of late.
PJ Dozier suffered a right hamstring strain back on January 25th and missed the Nuggets last seven games, while Garry Harris in battling with a left adductor strain that has forced him to miss the past four games. All of that has opened the door for Hampton who has appeared in each of the Nuggets past eight games.
Hampton played a career-high 27 minutes in the Nuggets game last Saturday against the Kings and has since played games of 17 and 19 minutes. His best performance may have come just last night as Hampton scored nine points on 4-of-7 shooting in the Nuggets blowout victory over the Cavaliers.
Not to mention Hampton also drilled a three, hauled in four rebounds, dished out three assists, and threw down this unreal poster dunk to cap off his evening:
RJ HAMPTON CHOSE VIOLENCE ON THIS DUNK pic.twitter.com/Uv4bQHBV5A— Bleacher Report (@BleacherReport) February 11, 2021
The thing that really stands out with Hampton isn't just his offensive ability, but it’s what he brings defensively as well. Hampton’s high-energy play style really helps him on the defensive end of the floor to stay in front of guys, contest shots, and make every look taken on him a difficult one.
With Dozier and Harris out at least for the short-term, it has opened the door for Hampton and he has taken full advantage. It might be tough for Nuggets head coach Michael Malone to take Hampton out of the lineup once both of those guys return. I certainly wouldn't with the upside Hampton presents and just how well he's played over the past few weeks.
Now we look at another guy who — unlike Hampton — has really yet to crack the Nuggets rotation at all: Zeke Nnaji
When the Nuggets drafted Nnaji 22nd overall in these years draft you could tell Denver was getting an athletic big man who they obviously saw tremendous upside in. We have certainly seen that upside in spurts and it was on full display Wednesday night against Cleveland as Nnaji poured in a career-high 14 points behind four three-pointers.
Nnaji played a carrer-high 18 minutes and made them count as he went 5-of-7 shooting from the field and was 4-of-6 from beyond the arc:
What really stands out about Nnaji is just how pure his stroke is from three-point range. In his one year at Arizona, Nnaji attempted just 17 threes and made only five of them. In just 11 games this season, Nnaji has already hit that mark as he’s 5-of-9 from three so far in his NBA career.
The only real issue with Nnaji is where do you currently play him with how the Nuggets roster stands? Nnaji played a ton of small forward in the Cavaliers game, so that could potentially be a spot he could see minutes at off the bench. With Michael Porter Jr. back in the starting lineup, the Nuggets could deploy a bench unit that features: Monte Morris, Hampton, Nnaji, JaMychal Green and even someone like Facundo Campazzo.
It’s not a bad idea as the Nuggets have been searching for a spark and these two rookies may be the ones to give it to them. In terms of minutes played by rookies this season, Nnaji (53) and Hampton (35) are both near the bottom of the list when you compare them to the 75 rookies that have at least seen a minute of playing time this season.
It all may come back to the shortened offseason, but I believe Nnajii and Hampton’s lack of playing time just has to do with the Nuggets depth more so than anything. Denver did pick both of these guys in the first round though and they owe it to themselves to see what they can do.
There is no perfect time then now with how banged up the Nuggets are. Hampton has certainly made the most of his minutes, now it’s time to give that same opportunity to Nnaji.