What Zeke Nnaji brings to the Denver Nuggets
For the first time in two years, the Denver Nuggets entered the NBA Draft with a first-round pick to add another piece to the team’s young core.
That piece turned out to be Zeke Nnaji, a 19-year-old post player out of the University of Arizona. This marks the second year in-a-row in which Denver made an addition to the frontcourt in the draft, with the Nuggets trading into the second round in 2019 to acquire Bol Bol.
However, the comparisons end there, as Nnaji is a very different big man in terms of size and skill set. At 6’10” and 240 pounds, Nnaji is a physical presence down low. Well-regarded for his high motor, Nnaji should be a nice addition to a Nuggets frontcourt rotation that may look very different next season.
Let’s take a look at what the newest Nugget brings to the table.
Varied offensive potential
Any discussion of Nnaji’s game must begin on the offensive end of the floor. He runs the floor hard in transition in an attempt to beat his matchup each time down the court, thus potentially securing elite post position for an easy dump-off pass.
When Nnaji does have the ball down low, he is able to finish at a high rate as a result of his impressive hands and touch around the basket. It’s no surprise to discover that the former Wildcat shot 58.6 percent on two-pointers during his lone collegiate season.
The truly intriguing aspect of Nnaji’s offensive game is his ability to use his size to his advantage. The 6’10” big man has shown an impressive ability to use his body to shield defenders from the ball, thus avoiding turnovers and making it easier to get shots off around the rim.
Furthermore, Nnaji can easily absorb contract because of his strength, and trips to the free- throw line are a welcomed sight. Not only did Nnaji shoot 76 percent from the line, he attempted a staggering 6.3 free throws per game during his freshman season, which should be a welcomed sight to the Nuggets and their fans.
Denver has struggled to consistently get to the charity stripe for easy points, which is where Nnaji can step right in. For reference, Nikola Jokić led the Nuggets with 4.1 free-throw attempts per game last season. Nnaji’s hustle and inability to give up on a play should generate quality second-chance opportunities and trips to the free-throw line.
Finally, some believe that Nnaji has a natural shooting touch which could develop over time and become a true weapon for him on the offensive end. He showed glimpses of this in college, attempting 0.5 3-pointers per game (albeit only converting on 29.4 percent of them). However, it’s that impressive free-throw percentage that has scouts and analysts excited about the possibility of Nnaji becoming a threat from the mid-range and potentially beyond the arc down the line.
In a Denver offense where he will mainly be relied on to finish plays around the rim and be active on the glass, Nnaji should be able to fit right in with his tenacity and hustle.
Although he didn’t show much in the way of playmaking skills at Arizona, Nnaji has already expressed his excitement to learn from Jokić, who is often considered the best passing big man of all time.
“He (Jokić) is a superstar. For a big man, his passing is incredible. He's super-talented. High IQ. I'm excited to learn from him and get to work with him.”
Perhaps the simplest, but most essential skill needed to contribute in a frontcourt rotation, Nnaji certainly won’t disappoint on the glass.
The 6’10” big man (who possesses a 7’2” wingspan) grabbed 8.6 rebounds per game at Arizona, which translated to 10.1 per-36 minutes. Nnaji’s effort on the glass stands out on the film, as he constantly finds himself battling with multiple opponents in tip drills in order to secure rebounds despite not being in ideal positioning.
The Nuggets have thrived on the offensive glass in recent seasons but found themselves down at 24th in defensive rebounds per game during the 2019-20 season. Nnaji can help on both ends of the floor, which could lead to him carving out a role next season as a spark plug off the bench when the team is in need of a physical presence and hustle on the glass.
Nnaji’s success at the next level likely depends on how refined his offensive game can become and if the big man can become an adequate defender. However, he already possesses the size, energy and versatility required in today’s NBA, making him an intriguing piece of the Nuggets’ young core.