Nuggets uncertain if Zeke Nnaji will return this season from knee injury

Zeke Nnaji’s lingering knee injury might prevent the reserve Nuggets forward from returning this season.

Nnaji has played just once since Feb. 11 while missing 17 games. His seventh consecutive absence on Tuesday night, at home against the Los Angeles Clippers, was preceded with a less-than-optimistic health update.

“I don’t know when or if he’ll be back,” coach Michael Malone said. “I really can’t say because I did not anticipate him being out this long. It’s unfortunate. Hopefully, we can get him back. But while he’s out, obviously, everybody else has to step up.”

Nnaji, a 2020 first-round NBA draft selection out of Arizona, was trending toward a breakout second season in the pros. He dropped a career-high 21 points in a December road win at the New York Knicks. In early February, Nnaji told The Denver Post: “I feel like I’m seeing things I wasn’t seeing at the beginning of the season, or even last year.”

Nnaji is averaging 6.6 points this season while shooting 48% from behind the arc. He can play the five in small-ball lineups with the ability to create offense through pick-and-roll situations. He can also thrive alongside more physical centers as a floating perimeter threat. His defensive versatility is another significant team asset.

The 21-year-old Minnesota native has appeared in fewer than 100 career NBA games. It is now unclear whether Nnaji will return for the Nuggets this season.

“It’s been a lot longer than I think anyone anticipated,” Malone said. “Zeke was having a very good season for us. Shooting the ball well, defensive versatility and finishing around the basket. He’s really growing up. Then this knee issue has come up.”

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