It has been a long time since the Denver Nuggets have had a rookie enter the rotation midseason and have such an immediate impact as Zeke Nnaji has in the last three games.
On Wednesday night, Nnaji played his first regular rotation minutes against the Cleveland Cavaliers and had four three-pointers, all in the fourth quarter of a blowout victory. On Friday night, he had a very quiet night against the Oklahoma City Thunder, missing his only shot attempt.
On Sunday night, the stage was bright against the Los Angeles Lakers on national television with LeBron James and Anthony Davis coming to town. The Lakers had won seven in a row, and Nnaji’s minutes were almost entirely going to be spent guarding a kid from a small town in Akron named LeBron.
Nnaji turned in an excellent performance to aid the Nuggets in snapping the Lakers win streak, scoring 16 points and grabbing three rebounds in 24 minutes of action. He was a +9 in those 24 minutes and provided a combination of outside shooting offensively as well as length and athleticism defensively. LeBron still scored on him on occasion, but Nnaji hit four three-pointers, three of which came with LeBron as the closest defender to the Arizona rookie big man.
With Paul Millsap sustaining a left knee sprain prior to halftime, JaMychal Green in foul trouble for much of the evening, and several key rotation guards and wings out, Nnaji needed to have a big performance for the Nuggets to win in the fashion that they did. It was very impressive to see Nnaji as comfortable shooting as he was on Sunday night while playing solid defense against LeBron, Kyle Kuzma, and the rest of the Lakers roster.
It’s going to be difficult for Michael Malone to remove Nnaji from the rotation after performances like these, even when Denver’s injured guards and wings return to full health. By virtue of being big and athletic, Nnaji gives Denver something at forward that they just haven’t had all season. Millsap and Green aren’t athletic perimeter options. Porter is more smooth than athletic at this stage of his development. Bol Bol hasn’t been ready to contribute consistently when Denver has given him opportunities on the wing. It’s very possible that Nnaji is already Denver’s best defensive option guarding bigger forwards with elite athleticism like LeBron, Davis, Kawhi Leonard, and others that the Nuggets will have to game plan for at a later date.
Count me as extremely intrigued while discussing the 22nd overall pick in the 2020 NBA Draft.