SAN ANTONIO – Nuggets forward Zeke Nnaji didn’t have a PlayStation or Xbox growing up. He wasn’t allowed to have a cell phone until his junior year of high school.
With enough going on between his on-court pursuits and prospects as a budding pianist, his parents sought to limit what distractions they could.
Teenage Nnaji didn’t appreciate the restrictions; NBA Nnaji gets it.
His work ethic, learned from his parents, is the primary reason he vaulted from a relatively unheralded recruit at Arizona to a second-year forward now threatening to crack the Nuggets’ rotation.
“Overlooked a little bit in high school, going into college, kind of the same way, so I’ve always kind of been underrated,” Nnaji told The Denver Post. “I take pride in working hard and trying to manifest what I want.”
Nuggets coach Michael Malone has noticed. In the wake of serious injuries to both Michael Porter Jr. and P.J. Dozier, both hybrid forwards who can play multiple positions, Malone’s taken a longer look at Nnaji. The 6-foot-10 forward has averaged 17.6 minutes per game in December, with 6.6 points and 2.4 rebounds per game. His 3-point shooting – 58.6% on the season – leads the NBA among players who’ve taken at least two threes per game.
“There’s different types of workers in this business, in this league,” Malone said. “There are the guys that will work hard when you grab them and bring them to the gym, which is good. That player’s only going to go so far.
“Then you have the other player that needs no one to get him in the gym,” Malone continued. “He is self-motivated. He is going to the gym early. He is coming back to the gym, he is shooting at night time. He is a guy that is not allowing his maybe not playing or Summer League failures to identify and define him, and that’s kind of who Zeke is. He’s a guy that does everything hard. You’re never gonna catch Zeke Nnaji cutting corners.”
Nnaji’s Summer League performance gnawed at him. After a relatively quiet rookie season, one where he was buried on the depth chart but flashed the ability to shoot and defend, Nnaji was eager to showcase the long hours he’d put in. An untimely quarantine messed up his plan. Nnaji said the day he cleared the NBA’s health and safety protocol was the same day the Nuggets flew to Las Vegas for their first game.
Summer League, otherwise known as basketball chaos for guys trying to attract attention, didn’t suit Nnaji well. After the disappointing showing, Malone talked to his young forward and reminded him of how little it meant.
“I’ve seen guys average 30 a game in Summer League, and they never played in the NBA,” Malone quipped.
The conversation stuck with Nnaji.
“It meant that they still had faith in me, they still trusted in my ability and believed in me,” he said. “I felt like I let a lot of people down by not playing well.”
This gets to the heart of Nnaji’s make-up.
An accomplished pianist, Nnaji said he practices, cumulatively, around two hours a day. It’s a release he described as “meditative” for him. He takes the same diligent approach to basketball. Shoot, watch film, study personnel, pick coaches’ brains, rinse, repeat.
Before the pre-draft process in 2020, Nnaji said he switched his diet and became vegan. He put on 20 pounds as a result of the change. He’s also become mindful about sleep and recovery. In other words, if there’s an advantage to be gleaned, the 20-year-old is eager to pursue it.
“Being a perfectionist, I know it’s never going to be perfect,” Nnaji said. “ … I look at it like an exponential curve. If three is the line, it never gets to three, but it keeps getting closer and closer the higher you get up. … I’m trying to be the closest one to three.”
Malone is thrilled with his attitude. But given that Nnaji’s drive is relentless, Malone said his next step is refining that motor and processing the game in real-time.
Am I on a shooter or a non-shooter? Am I responsible for this switch or not?
The encouraging part is that Nnaji has proven himself a student of the game. Ahead of his breakout game against the Knicks, he said he studied Julius Randle’s moves and counter-moves meticulously. One game earlier, while preparing for Orlando backup forward Chuma Okeke, Nnaji even noticed a discrepancy on the scouting report.
“I’m going through the scout before the game because I like to go through it a couple times and then one time before the game just to refresh my mind,” he explained of the Okeke example. “It says dominant right-hand driver. I was like, ‘Wait, wait, he’s a lefty. I remember he’s a lefty. Why’s it say he’s a dominant right-hand driver if he drives left all the time?’”
The blip, while benign, mattered to Nnaji. As does seemingly everything.
“If I can’t do something the best way, it frustrates me, because I’m like, ‘Why can’t I just do it? Do it the right way.’”
With his drive, maybe he can.