During the 2020 NBA Draft, the Denver Nuggets desperately needed a backup center. Mason Plumlee’s three-year contract was coming to a close, and he had been firmly entrenched as the backup center behind Nikola Jokić for several years. While a lot of draft analysts believed either Isaiah Stewart or Precious Achiuwa could be the pick, both ended up being selected before the Nuggets selected at 22nd overall. Arizona center Zeke Nnaji was another prospect ranked highly on Denver’s draft board that night, and they decided to take the strong, sweet shooting big man instead.
Throughout his rookie season, Nnaji primarily played power forward. Nnaji didn’t see the floor often, playing just 9.5 minutes per game in 42 regular season games. However, when he did play, he showed plenty of upside as a 3-and-D forward prospect, hitting outside shots and moving his feet well defensively. Not only did Nnaji shoot 40.7% from beyond the arc on 1.4 attempts a game; he also showed upside as a good perimeter defender against bigger wings: the type of player that has given Denver so many issues during the past few seasons.
For example, this possession against the Los Angeles Lakers where he guards LeBron James. He moves his feet and hips very well, keeping up with LeBron’s every step and eventually gets a good contest on the shot, forcing a miss.
Now, Zeke Nnaji isn’t going to be a LeBron James or Kawhi Leonard stopper by any means, but he is certainly an improvement over what the Nuggets have had during the past few seasons. Save for Aaron Gordon or Jerami Grant, Nnaji has an argument to be the most qualified defender in these situations due to his combination of strength, agility, and basketball IQ.
Another bright spot in Nnaji’s game is his jump shooting. As mentioned before, he shot 40.7% on 1.4 attempts from beyond the three point line last season. Though it’s a small sample size, Nnaji’s shooting form and confidence in his jumper are strong indicators that he should maintain that efficiency going forward.
In this clip, Markus Howard passes out to an open Zeke Nnaji on the wing. He then shoots it in stride with no hesitation; nothing but the sweet sound of a swish.
All in all, Nnaji showed in his rookie season that he has the tools to be a capable role player in the league right now. One question still lingers: where does he play and how often?
Currently, he’s probably seen as the third backup big behind both JaMychal Green and Jeff Green. Both of the Greens have shown to be good bench players last season, both playing key rotation roles for good playoff teams. For that reason, it may be difficult for Zeke to see the floor without the help of injuries or rest clearing a path for him to play consistently.
Still, the season is long. If one of the Greens should take time off due to injury or rest, Nnaji will have an opportunity to play his way into a role in the rotation, either as a backup big or (if Malone wants to experiment) a backup small forward. On media day, when asked what position he thought he would play, Zeke replied, “I see myself as a forward, playing wing. Playing a little bit inside, being able to stretch the floor...just building off my role last season.” Clearly, Nnaji sees himself as a forward. That may prevent him from seeing significant playing time this season due to the competition at the backup forward spots.
In order to earn immediate playing time, Nnaji still has work to do. Going forward though, there’s no question that Nnaji can fit within Denver’s rotation at the right time. Whether that time is this year depends on Nnaji himself.