Nuggets season in review: Zeke Nnaji

NBA: Denver Nuggets at Boston Celtics
Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports

Reviewing the 2021-22 season for Denver Nuggets power forward Zeke Nnaji

Zeke Nnaji – 2021-22 per game statistics

The story of the regular season

The year for Zeke Nnaji has come and gone, and, after entering the year with some optimism about taking another step forward, the year ended without much visible growth due to a knee injury that wiped out the final two months of his season. He showed some flashes of his potential as a spot-up shooter early in the season, but that potential was zapped away when the injury sent him almost permanently to the sidelines.

With the early season injury to Michael Porter Jr., there was an opening for Nnaji to take on a much larger role within the rotation, but he was never really able to seize the role due to his shortcomings on the defensive end of the floor and nagging injuries of his own. However, when he was on the floor, it was impossible to ignore his impact when he was able to get into a rhythm within the offense.

Among rotation players, Nnaji was first on the team in 3-point percentage, and he was a perfect offensive fit alongside Nikola Jokic and Aaron Gordon thanks to his ability to space the floor. Heading into Year 3, it’s unfortunate that Nnaji has struggled so much with injuries throughout his first two seasons because it’s becoming harder and harder to envision his future role on the team.

Best Moment – 21 points @ New York

There’s no doubt about Nnaji’s top moment of the season. It was his performance in the team’s 14-point win over the New York Knicks back on December 4th. Coming off of the bench, Zeke brought his flamethrower to the arena as he went 7-of-13 from the floor, including 5-of-9 from 3-point range for a career-high 21 points. Nnaji had Nuggets’ Twitter buzzing with his performance as fans were getting a great look at his fit alongside Jokic, as Jokic assisted on two of the five makes and had passed him the ball on two other 3-point attempts that were just off the mark.

Season Grade: B-

If I was factoring in Nnaji’s struggles with injuries this season, this grade would be even lower. Instead, I’m focusing on his play when he was on the floor. From last season to this season, Nnaji did everything that was asked of him. He increased his shooting percentage from the floor and 3-point range on a higher level of volume, and he was also a more impactful rebounder when he was out there.

Now, as far as the negatives from this season, we have to look at the defense. Nnaji’s Defensive Box Plus/Minus went from a -1.1 as a rookie to a -1.6 this season, and he also struggles too much with fouls as he averaged 4.1 per 36 minutes. He has to get better at either not fouling or playing good defense, but playing bad defense and fouling excessively is an easy way to make a quick trip to the bench under Michael Malone.

What does the future hold for Nnaji?

This season could be a make or break year for the third-year forward out of Arizona. The team will decide over the next few months whether or not they want to pick up his club option for the 2023-24 season, and, if they were to decline it, he could be playing for a new contract this next season. While he’s shown flashes of potential, he hasn’t stayed healthy or in the rotation long enough to do anything consistent.

When he’s active, he has usually been playing around 15 minutes per night, and he could even see that role increase next season depending on how the roster comes together. JaMychal Green & Jeff Green both have player options for next season, and the team will likely be looking to ease the amount of minutes that MPJ is playing to keep him healthy for the entire season. If that were the case, Nnaji would currently be the first man up to take on those minutes.

If he can prove that his 3-point shot is here to stay while taking a step forward on defense, he’ll be a fixture in the NBA for years to come because the league is always looking for forwards that can shoot from outside without having to dribble the air out of the ball to do it. Ultimately, it will all come down to health for Nnaji. He’s struggled to stay on the floor through each of his two seasons, and, if he’s going to be the primary backup for a guy that has also struggled to stay healthy, he needs to show that he can be available and able to play around the team’s stars.

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