After a slow start to his career, Nnaji is steadily improving and on his way to becoming an impact player off the Denver bench
We live in such an instant gratification world these days. When a commercial comes on, people check their phones to avoid any boredom. Some only watch highlights instead of the entire game. I do not exclude myself from this category. When I was ten years old, my mom wanted to gift me a Denver Broncos jersey. I was ecstatic and could not wait for a second to get that jersey in my hands. My favorite players were Rod Smith and Al Wilson, but there were no available jerseys at the time. The only available jersey was quarterback Jay Cutler. So since I knew I could have his jersey immediately, my mom got me that Cutler jersey. Big mistake. Jay Cutler now holds profound disdain among the Broncos community, while Rod Smith and Al Wilson are some of the Bronco greats.
Our desire to delay gratification is an issue for another time, but it can closely relate to the sporting world. There are many misconceptions some have about 1st round picks. One of them is that their draft status should correlate to All-Star caliber production in the future. In an ideal world, that would be the case; however, the chances of landing an All-Star player are as slippery as an eel. According to a 2019 study done by PDG-Analytics.com, the probability of drafting an All-Star was 10.1%.
Besides, the Nuggets took Kenneth Faried with the 22nd pick of the 2011 NBA draft, and although he was never a star player, I don’t think many Nugget fans regret that pick entirely. In my opinion, Zeke Nnaji could be in a similar situation as he works to improve further. He was drafted 22nd overall in the 2020 draft with hopes to be the future power forward. Now, we fast forward to 2022, and the starting lineup, when healthy, consists of Michael Poreter Jr. and Aaron Gordon. At this point, the Nuggets desperately need a dependable role player off the bench, and I think they have one in Zeke Nnaji.
Michael Malone appears to feel the same way. On January 15th, coach Malone gave several quotes on his impressions of Zeke Nnaji this year. They are arranged in this Twitter thread:
Michael Malone on Zeke Nnaji:
“Zeke, who’s been playing really well, will get obviously more opportunity tonight…
It’s been fun to watch, because Zeke is just a tremendous young man.”
— Joel Rush (@JoelRushNBA) January 16, 2022
Nnaji’s stats are somewhat limited by his opportunities and those who play ahead of him like Aaron Gordon and Jeff Green. He has played in 33 games this year, averages 15.3 minutes, 6.5 points, and 3.5 rebounds. Those numbers won’t astonish you, but his shooting percentages might. He is shooting 53% from the field, 50.8% from three, and has an effective field goal percentage of 63.8%. He only shoots about two threes a game, but he leads the league in three-point percentage for players with 30+ games played and over one attempt per game.
Unfortunately, that shooting success was part of Nnaji’s struggles early on. Last season, he got off to a hot start shooting but did not impact the game in other ways due to his reliance on the three-ball. As his shooting efficiency declined, so did his playing time. This season, it seems to have turned around. He is shooting the best he ever has at a more consistent clip, but he also accepted the challenge of forming into the modern NBA big. His physicality and activity inside have skyrocketed from last year, along with his shooting consistency and defensive versatility.
Active inside presence
This has been my favorite part of Nnaji’s game this year. This clip indicates who wants it more, and Nnaji gets rewarded for his hard work. When Hyland tries this layup, Nnaji parks himself in a good position in front of his opponent. Nevertheless, this layup will bounce off the left iron, and there are two Portland players shaded more to the left than Nnaji. Regardless, Nnaji reaches full extension to his left in a sea of hands, taps it to himself, and finishes with the two-hand slam. I would like to speak for all bigs when I say this, but there are few things more gratifying than snatching an offensive rebounding from an opponent and punching it home with two hands.
This clip is where you see Nnaji taking parts of Jokic’s game in the paint. Last season and throughout the summer league this season, he seemed to make quick yet indecisive decisions, but his patience is evident here. Malone also discussed his improvement as a roll man in pick-and-roll situations and this is a good example. When he receives the ball off the roll, three Portland defenders swarm the paint. Most unseasoned players, including Nnaji at times last year, panic but he remains level-headed. He sees a brief window of space between two defenders, executes a beautiful step-through, and finishes through contact. That is progression at its finest.
The patience and activity inside are on full display here. Jeff Green rises for a potential poster dunk, and instead of spectating, Nnaji boxes out to perfection for the offensive rebound. Once he grabs the board, he again has three defenders focused on him. Russell and Beasley position themselves to his right and left, so he calmly steps through to the middle. Then he pump fakes on Reid, knowing the Timberwolves are aggressive in their shot-blocking, and finishes easily with the layup.
Consistent shooting threat
Hindsight is 20/20 so we know the Timberwolves blew out Denver in this game, but at the moment, this is a big shot. They are down 20 as time dwindles in the 3rd, but there is still time for a comeback and a three would help ignite it. Nnaji is wide open at first, but Jokic does not give him his usual perfect pass as it bounces before it hits Nnaji’s hands. It’s tough to make these shots as a shooter because you have to regain position. Again, Nnaji does not panic; he swiftly collects himself and nails the three as Beasley aggressively closes out. Once he hits the shot, he is fired up and completely believes a comeback is possible. Unfortunately, it was not in the cards that night, but the effort and execution do not go unnoticed.
This might have been Zeke’s best game as a professional. In a route versus the Knicks, he dropped 21 points, 8 rebounds, and 5 threes on this night. This three is a tough shot because although he has space to start with, Randle closes out hard and very nearly blocks this shot. He seems to slap Nnaji on the wrist on the follow-through, but he is not phased and knocks it down anyways. This is the type of shot you hit when you’re in the zone, Nnaji was locked in that night, and I believe there are nights like this ahead.
This is what happens when you hit the three-ball consistently. Defenders take notice, so they give a hard closeout, but driving lanes are available when this happens. Facu skips the pass on to Nnaji, and if you can pause it at the 4-second mark, the Minnesota defender is getting ready to jump out of the gym. Nnaji recognizes the aggressive closeout and the open lane to paint to drive right. McDaniels give him a little contact on the way, but he absorbs it and baptizes the youngin’ with the right-handed jam sandwich. Such a wonderful sight.
This clip is from last year, but it shows his potential on the defensive end. You also do not see many rookies defend LeBron like this. Nnaji will follow LeBron all over the floor and he sticks to him like glue. Once LeBron drives on the wing, Zeke displays his perimeter defense by shuffling his feet well and showing his defensive IQ by keeping his hands and body straight up. At this point, LeBron knows he can’t draw a foul, so he takes a challenging step back, and Nnaji nearly blocks it for the contest.
Here is another one of the greatest scorers we have ever seen matched up with Zeke Nnaji. He does a great job positioning himself once Middleton passes it to the other end. At the time of the pass, Zeke is fronting Giannis, and he knows if he continues to do this, Giannis will have an easy dunk. He also knows that he is done for if he lets Giannis get to the restricted area. So he gets on Giannis’s back, protects the restricted area, consumes the contact, and stands his ground. This forces Giannis to take a fadeaway jumper, and when Giannis turns around, Nnaji is right there with a hand in his face.
Zeke finds himself in a tough position here, but he makes the best of it. He has to choose between two wide-open people. If he leaves Allen (the ball handler) open, he might knock down this three, but if he leaves Holiday open, it’s dangerous as well. Nnaji picks the right play and runs towards Allen because he has the ball, but he also knows that Allen will pass it off to Holiday as soon as he does this. His prediction comes true; he shows his quick hands and activity in the passing lane, which results in an open layup.
Ultimately, I am not here to say Zeke Nnaji is the second coming of Antawn Jamison or Rasheed Wallace. Nnaji is his own player with his own unique potential and a distinct progression path. These players are 18-21 years of age, some younger or older, are tasked with competing against the world’s best athletes. Not only that, but they are in the process of forming themselves as an adult amongst many fully-developed, prestigious people.
No, Nnaji is not filling the stat sheet, nor will he be named for a spot in the Rising Stars Challenge at the All-Star Game, but his progression is a welcome sight. He endured the early struggles and continues to do so, but the advancements in his game are clear. He is far from reaching his potential, but he has the right attitude and works to perfect his craft. I respect what he has done in a Nugget uniform so far, and I am excited to see what possibilities may appear.