Could Zeke Nnaji be the key to Denver’s success in 2023?

Zeke Nnaji #22 of the Denver Nuggets reacts against the New Orleans Pelicans during the first half at the Smoothie King Center on 8 Dec. 2021 in New Orleans, Louisiana. (Photo by Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images)
Zeke Nnaji #22 of the Denver Nuggets reacts against the New Orleans Pelicans during the first half at the Smoothie King Center on 8 Dec. 2021 in New Orleans, Louisiana. (Photo by Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images) /

Now, I know what you’re thinking, “why should I be care about Zeke Nnaji when the Denver Nuggets just acquired Bruce Brown, DeAndre Jordan, and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope?” While this is a fair question to be asking, I believe Zeke Nnaji has the potential to become a key contributor next season and may even prove to be more valuable than any one of these players.

Hear me out.

Lack of frontcourt depth could lead to more opportunities for Nnaji

The first thing we need to look at is who’s currently standing in between Zeke Nnaji and him becoming key cog in the Denver Nuggets rotation.

As a 6’9” stretch four who’s never averaged more than a block per game in college or the NBA, Nnaji surely won’t be relied on for his size or explosiveness on the interior. That being said, he may not need to be given the circumstances.

The DeAndre Jordan signing was interesting, to say the least, as DJ played less than 14 minutes per game last season, and is clearly on the decline of his NBA career, just weeks away from turning 34 years old. However, if there’s one thing he can provide, it’s defense, even if it’s in a limited capacity.

He’s a former two-time first team All-Defense recipient and is widely regarded as one of the premier shot blockers of our generation. Obviously, he’s nowhere near as mobile or athletic as he once was, but there’s no reason why he can’t provide solid interior defense next season as The Joker’s primary backup.

Speaking of the reigning MVP of the league, Nikola Jokic, it’s worth mentioning that he’s coming off a year in which he averaged career-highs in both steals and blocks per game. Sure, he probably won’t make first team All-Defense any time soon, but he’s still a far above average defender.

What this means for Zeke Nnaji is that he’ll never be relied on to defend the paint, or guard the opposing team’s best frontcourt player, as either Jokic or Jordan can take over this role. Which should allow Nnaji to simply focus on improving his offensive game, and utilize his unique skill set.

With Ismael Kamagate set to remain overseas next season, the only traditional “big men” the Denver Nuggets have under contract is Jokic and Jordan. The latter of which is basically only good for open looks under the basket, while the former is generally viewed as more of a facilitator than a scorer, though he obviously excels at both.

Michael Porter Jr. can slide down to play power forward given his size and versatility, I suppose. However, I think most would agree that he’s more effective from the wing than the post, on both ends of the floor. Now, there is a better argument to be made for Aaron Gordon, but if these are the only two “power forwards” in the rotation, there still appears to be a certain lack of depth at the position.

Meaning that if the nasty injury bug were to resurface like last year, or certain mismatches were to present a need for a bigger lineup, Zeke Nnaji could see his name get called sooner than expected and in pivotal moments of the game.

His skill set fits perfectly with the Nuggets core

What also plays into this is Nnaji’s unique skill set, as previously mentioned. Unlike Jordan, Nnaji isn’t just a strong and mobile big man who can play hard and rebound at a high rate, but he’s also a tremendous shooter that can help to stretch the floor. Which means he would slot in perfectly next to Jokic or DJ to form a potentially lethal one-two punch in just about any lineup.

As a freshman for the Arizona Wildcats, Nnaji proved to be one of the best pure scorers and rebounders in the nation. Averaging over 16 points and 8.6 rebounds in 32 minutes per game, all while knocking down more than 57 percent of his shots from the field.

However, part of the reason why he presents so much value for the Denver Nuggets is because of his perimeter shooting ability.

In college he shot just under 30 percent from deep, but has since risen his efficiency levels to over 40 percent in 2021, and nearly 47 percent from long-range in 2022, on 2.0 attempts per game. Even though he hasn’t fully blossomed into an elite deep threat in the NBA, he could see more opportunity to flourish in 2023.

It’s also worth noting that he’s vastly improved over the last two seasons in Denver, more than doubling his minutes, points, assists, and rebounds totals since getting drafted 22nd overall back in 2020. All while maintaining a consistent shooting stroke from the field (50.3 percent), and the three-point line (44 percent) throughout his young NBA career.

Given his ability to knock down mid-long range shots at an efficient rate, he’s got more potential than anybody (not named MPJ) to slot into the four spot next to Jokic or Jordan. The sheer flexibility Malone will have to input Zeke Nnaji into various rotations alone should allow him to continue his upwards trend with the franchise.

The Denver Nuggets could even run a deadly small ball lineup of Nnaji, Gordon, Porter, Murray and Bones running the point, with Gordon and Nnaji switching on and off in the post. After all, Zeke does still have a solid 7’1” wingspan and over 240 pounds of muscle to move bodies around in the paint.

Only time will tell what the future holds for Nnaji, who hasn’t hit the hardwood since February due to a lingering knee injury. Although, given the circumstances, and his unique skill set, I wouldn’t be at all shocked if he turned a few heads in 2023.