Denver Nuggets Twenty Greatest: 12th - Nene Hilario

Our trip through the Denver Nuggets 20 Greatest Players makes a pit stop at #12  and we find another terrific Nuggets big man waiting there who now goes by just one name: Nene (Hilario).

Maybyner Rodney “Nene” Hilario was playing basketball professionally in Brazil when he decided, at the age of 19, to make himself available for the 2002 NBA Entry Draft.  He was selected with the 7th overall pick of the first round by the New York Knicks.  The Knicks had actually chosen Hilario for the Denver Nuggets and immediately after he was selected, the Knicks traded him to the Nuggets along with Marcus Camby and Mark Jackson in exchange for Antonio McDyess, Frank Williams and a 2003 2nd round draft pick.

After being acquired by the Nuggets, Hilario legally changed his name to the Brazilian moniker “Nene” which means “Baby” in Portuguese.  He was called Nene or “Baby” because he was the youngest child in his entire extended family.  He grew up , as nearly all Brazilian children do, playing soccer but found his interest switch to basketball when he was 14 due to his rapid growth and only being allowed to play goaltender on the local soccer team.  He was first noticed by NBA Scouts at the 2001 Goodwill Games as a member of the Brazilian National Team and then excelled at the NBA Pre-Draft camp in Chicago that summer. His stock had risen greatly by draft day.  Nene was the first Brazilian ever to be selected in the first round of the NBA Draft.  The Nuggets did not have a first round pick in 2002 and they coveted the big man with immense potential and were able to find a trade partner in the Knicks.  The only hang-up in making the deal for Nene was that the Knicks insisted on getting Denver’s best player, Antonio McDyess, in return.  The Nuggets relented when Marcus Camby was added to the package and Nene Hilario was a Denver Nugget.  His Nuggets career ended almost 10 years later when he was traded to the Washington Wizards on March 15, 2012 in exchange for JaVale McGee and Ronny Turiaf.

Nene played most of 10 seasons with the Nuggets with a couple of major glitches.  On opening night, 2005, Nene had played only 3 minutes in the starting line-up against the San Antonio Spurs when he went down in a heap under the Nuggets basket and did not play another minute for the Nuggets that season.  He had torn his anterior cruciate ligament and meniscus and sprained his medial collateral ligament and required major reconstructive surgery to repair all three injuries.  He was able to return to action only 12 games into the 2006 season and played in 64 games in the 2006-2007 season averaging almost 27 minutes per game.  The 2nd glitch in Nene’s Nuggets career came on January 11, 2008, when he announced that he was taking an indefinite leave of absence from the team to take care of a personal medical issue.  It turned out that he was suffering from testicular cancer and had surgery to remove a tumor on January 14th.  Remarkably, Nene returned to action on March 27, 2008 after recovering from the surgery; with a little over a minute left in a game at home against the Dallas Mavericks, Nene entered to a resounding ovation from the Denver fans.  Nene is cancer free to this day.

Nene may be one of the more overlooked Nuggets of all time because he never had one season that would be considered amazing.  His rookie year was much better than the Nuggets expected as he started the season playing a back-up role but wound up starting 53 of the Nuggets games and averaged a very respectable 10.5 points, 6.1 rebounds and 1.6 steals per game.  He was voted to the All-NBA Rookie first team for his efforts and the Nuggets felt that they had something in this raw but talented Brazilian.  Nene’s best season was the magical 2008-2009 season with Chauncey Billups at the helm when he averaged 14.6 points, 7.8 rebounds, 1.2 steals and 1.3 blocks per game and helped lead the Nuggets to the Western Conference Finals where they lost in 6 games to the LA Lakers.  For his Nuggets career, Nene average 12.4 points, 7.0 rebounds, 1.3 steals and 1.0 block per game.  None of these stats look all that impressive on paper, but with his longevity in a Nuggets uniform, he shows up on a number of all time statistical lists for the Franchise.  Here they are:

  • 7th in games played with 555
  • 8th in total minutes played with 16,445
  • 7th in free throws made with 1,734
  • 5th in free throws attempted with 2,556
  • 7th in offensive rebounds with 1,183
  • 6th in defensive rebounds with 2,676
  • 7th in total rebounds with 3,859
  • 5th in personal fouls with 1,864
  • 9th all time in points scored with 6,868 in his Nuggets career
  • 2nd in field goal percentage (to the legendary Bobby Jones) at a sparkling .560
  • 5th in steals with 694
  • 9th in blocked shots with 508

That is a heckuva list for someone who never averaged 17-20 points and 8-10 rebounds a game during any one season.  Had Nene not sustained the devastating knee injury in 2005 or the cancer scare in 2008, he would be much higher on all of these lists and maybe show up on a few more.  I had a lot of heartburn deciding where to put Nene on my 20 greatest list because for much of his career he was something of an enigma.  I always thought that with his size, athleticism and basketball I.Q. he should have been at minimum a consistent 17 point, 10 rebound guy.  And at best, maybe the next coming of Hakeem Olajuwon.  Obviously he never lived up to either of those expectations, but in reviewing his Nuggets career, he was a very good player who was an incredible Denverite (he married Colorado State Graduate and Volleyball Player Lauren Prothe in 2009) who played almost 10 full seasons with the team.

The most vivid image I have of Nene in a Nuggets uniform is him getting the ball on the low block and, much like Olajuwon, pulling off a spin move and dunking over his opponent with that trademark Nene scowl on his face, or pulling up from the elbow and knocking down a 16-18 foot jumper.  To be rewarded for perseverance and longevity is an honor bestowed on few, but I bestow that honor upon Maybyner Rodney “Nene” Hilario, my 12th greatest Denver Nugget of all time.

Photo Credit to  Follow the Nuggets offseason of moving and shaking @Nugg_Love.





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