The Summer of 2023 worked heavily in favor of Zeke Nnaji’s basketball career. The player in front of him in the rotation (Jeff Green) found greener pastures in Houston & the player he was most likely to compete with for the newly vacated rotation spot (Vlatko Cancar) went down with a season ending injury before training camp even started. Zeke’s offseason culminated with a brand new, 4-year, $32 million contract extension. Just about everything that could go Zeke’s way did just exactly that. However, once Summer gave way to Fall and the basketball games started there were problems, and those problems presented themselves from preseason to postseason. Ultimately, Nnaji’s ’23/’24 season was anything but the perfect scenario that his Summer was.

2023/2024 Season Stats

9.9 3.2 2.2 0.6 0.7 46.3% 26.1% -0.2 -3.7

Season Story

There was plenty of hope and belief that Zeke was going to finally take his permanent spot in the rotation and develop into the type of player the Nuggets pictured when they selected him with the 22nd overall pick in the 2020 NBA draft. With the opportunity finally available, there were no excuses. Unfortunately, it didn’t work out that way for Nnaji. In the preseason the issues started to come to the forefront. The Nuggets played back to back games against the Chicago Bulls who had Nikola Vucevic starting at center with noted rebounder Andre Drummond off the bench. The first game didn’t go terrible with Vuc sitting and Drummond getting the start, but when Drummond returned to his bench role for the second game and matched up with Nnaji, Zeke’s poor rebounding skills showed up in a big way. Drummond grabbed thirteen rebounds in just fourteen minutes while Nnaji looked completely helpless on the glass. That proved to be a preview of things to come.

Despite the up and down preseason, Nnaji still entered the season as the backup five getting around 12-15 minutes spelling Nikola Jokic. There were some flashes. On a couple occasions Nnaji would get multiple blocks and his rim protection certainly seemed to be the best of any of Denver’s bench options outside of Peyton Watson. Unfortunately there’s wasn’t much outside of the occasional block though. He still struggled to keep opponents off the glass, his three point shot that looked so reliable his first two seasons was more reminiscent of his third season where it appeared he forgot how to shoot from outside completely and perhaps the most troublesome was his struggles with setting effective screens, essentially eliminating the 1/5 pick and roll from Denver’s offense when Nikola was off the court. With Jamal Murray fighting injury for large portions of the season, asking Reggie Jackson to run an offense that didn’t include coming off a pick from his center was a bridge too far. By the start of December Nnaji was removed from the rotation entirely. He’d bounce back a couple weeks later with a string of 15 straight games but that essentially was the story throughout the season for Zeke: brief runs in the rotation before DeAndre Jordan supplanted him for a month or so. Rinse and repeat.

’24/’25 outlook with the Nuggets

Zeke will enter the upcoming year in sort of a weird spot. His inability to earn consistent minutes as a player heading into his fifth year is alarming. In most cases it would mean he’s hitting the open market and trying to hang on to his NBA career. That’s not the case for him though with his extension that will go into effect this year. It leaves the Nuggets with essentially three options: go back to the well on Zeke’s development and hope to pull out different results that get him to the level of rotation player, pay in the form of draft picks or young players to trade him and get off the contract, or continue to let him ride the bench and just eat the money.

When Zeke got the extension it was a bit of an eyebrow raiser, given that he had yet to produce in the NBA, but the Nuggets were all “nah, nah it’s all good, tradeable salary bro.” The idea being that even if Zeke wasn’t destined to spend four more years in Denver, his $8 million per year salary gave them a contract to trade that they could potentially pair with a young player or a draft pick and find an upgrade for their rotation. Unfortunately with Zeke’s poor performance last season, adding him to any deal is negative value for the team that takes him. There’s nothing to indicate that he will start producing at the level of a player who is being paid the full mid-level exception and with his contract just at the start of its four year term, a team willing to trade for him just to absorb his salary is going to want something commensurate in value to the $32 million he is owed (aka a first round pick, of which the Nuggets may or may not have any to trade).

That seems to make option three for the Nuggets: pay Zeke to ride pine, the most likely scenario for the upcoming season. It’s certainly not ideal, but there’s just little wiggle room to do something else. No doubt Nnaji, along with Cancar (if the Nuggets pick up his option) and any draft or free agency big man acquisitions will be in an open competition for that backup big role come training camp, but with Zeke’s history there’s little reason to believe he has any sort of advantage over someone else in terms of acquiring that role. If he does then it’s a win-win for him and the Nuggets. He solidifies his NBA career & Denver gets what they paid for. If he’s destined for another year of being a non-contributor though, then in all likelihood we are looking at the beginning of the end of Zeke’s time as a Nugget with the only hold up being how long it will take before the price Denver has to pay to get off his deal is something they are willing to swallow.