Denver Stiffs continues their 2021-22 Player Preview series with second year forward Zeke Nnaji
Zeke Nnaji 2020-21 per game statistics
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When the Denver Nuggets selected Zeke Nnaji 22nd overall in the 2020 NBA Draft, they believed they had found their backup center of the future. Nnaji, a one-and-done product of the University of Arizona, averaged 16.1 points and 8.6 rebounds during his freshman season for the Wildcats. With Mason Plumlee’s free agency looming, the Nuggets had a vacancy at backup center and selected Nnaji, who they believed to be the best option on the board for their franchise.
One year later and the general impression of Zeke Nnaji as a player has changed significantly. Though he still has decent size to play the center position, Nnaji has been anything but a center at the NBA level thus far. According to Basketball Reference, Nnaji has spent just 25% of his minutes at center with the vast majority coming at power forward. With it, Nnaji demonstrated some impressive complementary forward skills. From over 40% three-point shooting to elite defensive possessions as a defender against primary playmakers, there was a lot to like about what Nnaji brought to the table.
Then, Las Vegas Summer League happened, and Nnaji stopped hitting outside jumpers. He struggled on the defensive end too. Entering the preseason, Nnaji’s defensive struggles have continued, and losing those primary contributions means losing what makes Nnaji so intriguing as a prospect. He still has a shot at winning minutes in the regular season rotation, but opportunities come and go for young players quicker than the vets.
It’s going to take some work for Nnaji to break into the rotation, but he’s closer than one might think.
Best Case for 2021-22
For Nnaji individually, the best case scenario is to take advantage of an opportunity that presents itself due to a frontcourt injury. Obviously, Nuggets fans shouldn’t root for injuries to occur, but for Nnaji specifically, that is his best ticket into the permanent rotation. If one of Jeff Green or JaMychal Green were to miss time, then Nnaji, Bol Bol, and Vlatko Čančar would be the most likely options to replace those minutes. Nnaji has the talent and play style to replicate some of what both Greens provide.
Stepping into that role would mean a consistent 15 to 20 minutes per game for the second year forward. Nnaji would have ample opportunity to establish himself as a reliable contributor, pairing with one of the Greens to anchor Denver’s minutes without Jokić. If Nnaji can recapture last season’s quality shooting in a larger role, it would mean everything for his future in Denver.
Worst Case for 2021-22
Contrary to popular belief, the worst case for Nnaji is NOT simply not playing this season. Nnaji is in the second year of a four year rookie contract. He has time to develop at his own speed. Even if he doesn’t play this year, he can continue working on his game and be an option for future seasons.
No, the worst case scenario for Nnaji is receiving an opportunity and flubbing it. Injuries (and rest) will happen throughout the year, and Nnaji will eventually receive his turn to shine. If he doesn’t showcase growth in important areas and actually regresses in areas the coaching staff is hoping he improves, then the Nuggets may decide to move on from him or at least commit to the development of someone else.
It will be important for Nnaji to capitalize and be ready to prove himself whenever opportunity strikes.
One Bold Prediction
By the end of the season, Zeke Nnaji will be the second big off the bench and in line for playoff minutes after a surprise breakout season. The Nuggets selected Nnaji in the 2020 Draft for a reason, and he will hold up his end of the bargain in spectacular fashion after capitalizing when opportunity strikes.