2020 NBA Draft

Arizona's freshman Zeke Nnaji learned hoops lessons from music

Keyboardist negotiates hardwood with discipline, improvisation

Minutes before he’s about to play his first game before a home crowd, Arizona freshman Zeke Nnaji is nervous. It’s the Wildcats’ annual Red-Blue scrimmage, but instead of joining his teammates as they gather for the playing of the national anthem, Nnaji is at midcourt, squeezing his 6-foot-10, 240-pound frame onto a chair in front of an electric piano. He’s not there to observe the anthem; he’s getting ready to perform it.

Much like he does everything else in life, Nnaji has prepared for this moment. He’s a perfectionist by nature and has worked on his unique arrangement of the song for more than a month. Now, as he’s getting ready to play, Nnaji is trying to chase away any self doubt flickering through his brain. Little wonder he had a few jitters.

“That was the biggest crowd I had ever played in front of,” Nnaji says.

Once Nnaji’s fingers began flying over the keyboard, the nearly 15,000 spectators inside Arizona’s McKale Center were no longer in his focus. He was locked in on the song, and it was incredible. Somehow, Nnaji had taken the national anthem from Baltimore, where Francis Scott Key wrote it in 1814, down to New Orleans, where pianist Ferdinand Joseph LaMothe, better known as Jelly Roll Morton, became a legend playing his rousing brand of jazz and ragtime. That Nnaji’s musical hero and primary influence began performing in 1900 and died in 1941 is significant and bears further examination, because it reveals much about the young man’s intelligence, character, work ethic and, well, good taste.

But for now, let’s stay focused on the national anthem, just as Nnaji was that late September evening.

“You sit down and you’re thinking about everything,” says Nnaji, a certain first-round pick in the NBA Draft, whenever it will be conducted. “But then you start playing and you get into a zone and this rhythm. You’re not really not thinking about anything; you’re just watching yourself play. Toward the end, you start to come back, and once you’ve finished, you see the crowd cheering. I had practiced a lot; worked my butt every day. I was confident in my preparation. I just took a deep breath, calmed myself, and started playing.”

When Nnjai finished, a huge smile flashed across his face as the McKale Center crowd roared its approval.

Nnaji, who has played the piano since he was four and began taking formal lessons when he was eight, brings the same level of dedication and preparation to basketball. The piano is a difficult instrument to master. Developing the skillset needed to play in the NBA is even harder. Learning to play the piano helped Nnaji learn to play basketball.

“It’s all about preparation,” Nnaji says. “The same kind of preparation and time I spent for the national anthem, I bring that dedication and focus every day to basketball. Whether it’s ball handling, shooting, lifting or cardio, it all boils down to how focused you are and determined you are to prepare yourself to become better.”

Those who know Nnaji best have no doubt there’s a direct correlation from the piano to the court.

“How Zeke approaches the piano and his practice is very similar to basketball,” says Arizona assistant coach Danny Peters, who recruited Nnaji from his native Minnesota, where despite playing for famed Hopkins High School and a strong AAU program, he was overshadowed and underrated. “Zeke’s personality is very much a perfectionist, which comes from his playing the piano. His dad told me that before he ever got here.

“But ultimately, there’s a big difference between playing an instrument and playing basketball. The piano doesn’t fight you back. So when Zeke first got here, we talked a lot about playing through mistakes, and assuring him he wasn’t always going to be perfect, and that that was OK.”

Jay Fuhrmann, coach of Nnaji’s AAU team Division 1 Minnesota, is once again tutoring Nnjai as he prepares for the Draft. He has a theory that music and basketball go together like French fries and ketchup.

“There’s a complete correlation,” Furhmann says. “Even when I’m training kids. I’ll tell them, pretend you’re dancing right now. You want to have flow and move your hips. All the really good athletes have that. Flow. Zeke has it. And on top of that, he’s got discipline. You just don’t become a great piano player overnight. You’re got to work at it. You’ve got to fail. He plays so effortlessly. Just like he plays basketball.”

Nnaji, who wound up leading Arizona in scoring (16.1 ppg), rebounding (8.6 rpg) and field-goal percentage (.570), has another advantage when it comes to basketball. He plays with a chip on his shoulder the size of a baby grand piano.

Five freshman who made the McDonald’s All-American team, including Arizona teammates Josh Green and Nico Mannion, played in the Pac-12 this season. Nnaji thought he deserved McDonald’s accolades, too, but most of the recruiting analysts didn’t see it that way. Nnaji is proof that star ratings aren’t a reliable measure of future success. Only one recruiting analyst rated him a five-star prospect. Others considered worthy of four stars, certainly nothing to be ashamed of. But Nnaji thought he deserved better.

He was eager to prove that in what turned out to be his only season at Arizona. And when the regular season ended, it was Nnaji, not any of those five McDonald’s All-Americans, who earned Pac-12 Freshman of the Year honors. He was also voted first-team All-Pac-12.

Making Nnaji’s accomplishments all the more impressive was the fact he was a focal point.

“He was the biggest target to take away,” Peters says. “As the season went along, the double teams came. He got better and better at handling them. It wasn’t the easiest thing to do.”

Though Nnaji was disappointed he didn’t play in the McDonald’s All-Star game and was cut last summer from the USA Basketball U19 team tryouts, in retrospect he views both snubs as a blessing.

“If I hadn’t been overlooked,” Nnaji says, “I might not have had the kind of motivation I did to show what I could do.”

Now the evaluation process begins all over again. Holed up in Minnesota, where, Nnaji is quick to point out, he and Fuhrmann are practicing safe social distancing, he’s preparing for the draft. One skill he’s working on, because some scouts view him as a tweener—neither a legitimate stretch four nor five man—is shooting.

“Where he’s going to wow the scouts is his shooting ability,” Fuhrmann says. “He wasn’t asked to do that at Arizona. He’s got the ability to shoot the 3. We’re really working on him getting comfortable from that NBA 3-point line, and it’s been fun to watch. If you’ve never stood at the NBA 3-point line and shot two or three hundred in a row, you don’t realize how far away it is and the leg strength it takes.

“The first day we started, Zeke was OK at it, and the second day, he was even better. By the third day, I was looking over at his dad and I got big eyes. He’s going to be an exceptional shooter in the NBA. It’s hard to develop the touch. Zeke has it. And he’s got the footwork down where his foundation is solid. Now it’s just about repetition.”

When he’s not practicing, Nnaji passes away social isolation time by listening to and playing music. He’s in a serious Stevie Wonder phase, and he’s never too far away from his idol, Jelly Roll Morton. How could a 19-year-old have such an appreciation for an artist who died years before even his parents were born?

“Growing up my parents exposed me to different genres of music,” Nnaji says. “I have an appreciation for all kinds. Even playing the piano. I play jazz, ragtime. My favorite genre is ragtime. It’s got that New Orleans feel. That’s why I wanted to incorporate that into the national anthem.”

Nnaji has no plans to follow in the footsteps of the late Wayman Tisdale, the former University of Oklahoma and NBA star who, after his playing days were finished, became a smooth jazz bass player of considerable skill and renown.

“I see it as more of a hobby,” Nnaji says. “Nothing I’d like to try professionally. It’s an escape for me, a way to relax.”

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Chris Dortch is the editor of the Blue Ribbon College Basketball Yearbook. You can email him here, follow him on Twitter and listen to the Blue Ribbon College Basketball Hour.