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Player Grades: Zeke Nnaji had a promising rookie season

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Nnaji showed flashes of brilliance during his first year in Denver

NBA: Portland Trail Blazers at Denver Nuggets Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

Many were surprised when the Denver Nuggets selected Zeke Nnaji with the 22nd pick in the 2020 draft. The Nuggets already had a fairly deep backcourt and with talented guards like RJ Hampton still on the board that could fill a positional need, another big man prospect seemed perplexing.

Turns out Tim Connelly knows what he’s doing.

While not a sexy draft pick by any means, Nnaji has shown flashes of potential in a role that would benefit Denver greatly. He has a high motor and high IQ, held more than his own on defense, is a gym rat and a high-character guy. He only played in 42 games, but his minutes were more than enough to see that the potential is there for him to carve out a solid role in the rotation for years to come.

Zeke Nnaji 2020-21 per game stats

Games Minutes Points Rebounds Assists Turnovers 2-point % 3-point %
42 9.5 3.2 1.5/td> 0.2 0.2 57.8 40.5

What Happened

Nnaji wasn’t really expected to garner much playing time, if any. He showed up in garbage time to start the year, but then had a breakout game against Cleveland on February 12 (see below). That began a nice stretch of the season wherein Nnaji was a consistent part of the rotation, topping double-digit minutes 15 times and scoring a career high 16 points in a win against the Lakers.

Nnaji was rumored to be a possible trade chip in the trade that ultimately happened for Aaron Gordon, but of course RJ Hampton was dealt instead. Unfortunately for Zeke, with the addition of Gordon his role was relegated back to garbage time minutes. That doesn’t mean they weren’t productive, though.

Best Moment — Poster dunk against Cavaliers

In an early season blowout at home against Cleveland, Nnaji made a really strong case for more playing time thanks to a career night. Though the entire second half was garbage time, Zeke came in and nailed four three-pointers, showing off his sweet shooting stroke. The pièce de résistance, however, was his breakaway poster dunk, as seen below. It was tough! And then to cap it off he earned a technical foul for taunting. I sincerely hope there’s a lot more of that in the future.

Player Grade — A-

It can be difficult to grade a player when his playing time is jostled around as much as Nnaji’s. Still, it’s safe to say that Nnaji surprised a lot of people with his play. A lot of the early draft grades on him were that he wasn’t ready to contribute to an NBA offense and that defensively he can’t hold his own.

Well, both of those turned out to be false. Shooting 40% from three is no joke, and Nnaji might have one of the prettiest strokes on the roster. For a team that includes Michael Porter Jr. and Jamal Murray, that is saying something. Defensively, Zeke proved that he can guard NBA players and at a high level. His perimeter defense in particular was a pleasant surprise.

To be clear, Nnaji is still very much a prospect but his raw skills were much better than advertised. If he continues to improve he could be an impact player for Denver as early as next season.

Offseason Outlook

During his end of year interview, Tim Connelly mentioned that he took a long walk around Denver’s LoHi neighborhood with Nnaji to talk about his next steps as a player. “I think Zeke’s ability to guard and make shots is really unique for a 20-year-old big. Even though he’s 6-foot-10, he’s going to be a heck of a three-and-D guy,” Connelly said. Later, when talking about both Zeke and PJ Dozier, he continued, “Their versatility and length gives us a different look. It allows us to do a lot of things on both ends of the court. I think both guys will be really important and impactful next season.”

It certainly seems that Nnaji is set to find more playing time next season instead of being buried in the depth chart, though that will also depend on player option players like JaMychal Green. Still, Nnaji has a 3&D skillset that the Nuggets desperately need. Any progress made in his rookie offseason will be beneficial. Mike Singer reported that Nnaji was in consideration to play for Nigeria in the Olympics but that he opted to focus on individual development instead.

No matter what his role is in 2021-22, Nnaji will be ready.