20Q: Is Zeke Nnaji ready for a larger role?

Feb 11, 2022; Boston, Massachusetts, USA; Denver Nuggets forward Zeke Nnaji (22) reacts after making a three-point basket against the Boston Celtics during the second half at TD Garden. Mandatory Credit: Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports

Today marks 40 days until the beginning of the 2022-23 NBA season. In preparation for the most anticipated year in Denver Nuggets franchise history, Ryan Blackburn is asking and answering 20 burning questions facing the Nuggets prior to Media Day on Monday, September 26th. One question each weekday for the next four weeks.

Question 9: Is Zeke Nnaji ready to anchor the bench defense?

Zeke Nnaji was well on his way to a playoff rotation spot until an unfortunate midseason injury.

As if the Denver Nuggets didn’t have enough injury issues during the 2021-22 season, Nnaji suffered a nagging knee injury in February that never fully healed. After Game 55 of the regular season, Nnaji played in just two more regular season games and logged just eight playoff minutes. The Nuggets went on to lose to the Golden State Warriors in five games without Jamal Murray, Michael Porter Jr., and…Nnaji.

Nnaji’s absence down the stretch wasn’t discussed enough. Though JaMychal Green and DeMarcus Cousins helped to cover up his absence, there were many games where his defensive mobility and outside shooting would have helped the Nuggets win games. Because through 55 games of regular season basketball, Nnaji had positioned himself as the third big man in the Nuggets rotation. Nikola Jokić and Jeff Green were the starters, and Nnaji logged the most minutes behind him.

After the new year and up until Nnaji sustained his injury, he was shooting the cover off of the ball. Though he averaged just 18.6 minutes per game, Nnaji posted 7.6 points and 4.5 rebounds in that 19-game stretch, maintaining a 62.8 FG% and 52.9 3P%. Yes. That’s right. Fifty two point nine percent. Nnaji found himself in an incredible rhythm shooting the basketball, and the Nuggets bench was beginning to stabilize with him in the lineup after Bones Hyland took over for Facu Campazzo at point guard.

Nnaji helped provide the space to shoot that both Bones and Boogie needed to operate in the middle of the floor. He was never shy about letting threes fly after a certain point, and that confidence was desperately needed for a bench unit that just didn’t have enough shotmakers out there for long periods of time.

More than anything though, Nnaji was beginning to find his place in Jokić-led lineups. It was easier to learn for Nnaji than others, as he simply needed to space the floor in the right places, cut at the right times, and let Jokić do the heavy lifting. Nnaji certainly paid off Jokić for the passes he threw his way.

It’s clear that Nnaji was on his way to a playoff rotation spot. Nnaji lost a lot of valuable development and trust building when his injury knocked him out of the rotation. The Nuggets didn’t have enough time to integrate him back in when he returned, and he never got a chance to prove himself in a playoff environment.

As a result, a lot hinges on this season, Nnaji’s third in the NBA. Rookie scale contracts for first round picks last four years, and Nnaji has passed the halfway point. Now, it’s time for him to solidify himself as a player the Nuggets should value long term. As a former first round pick, the Nuggets believe in Nnaji and want him to succeed. They can’t wait on his development schedule though. The race for a 2023 championship began the day the Nuggets were eliminated. Nnaji has to get on that train or risk being left at the station.

So, what does Nnaji have to do to solidify his spot in the Nuggets rotation this season?

The first aspect of this question to consider: which rotation spots are actually available. The starting five is set with Murray, KCP, Porter, Gordon, and Jokić. That should be one of the best, most potent lineups in the NBA next year. Bones Hyland and Bruce Brown are basically shoo-ins for rotation spots at backup point guard and shooting guard respectively. Small forward is up in the air, a battle that I chronicled yesterday that features Christian Braun and Davon Reed.

That leaves backup power forward and backup center. Veterans Jeff Green and DeAndre Jordan figure to factor into the position battles at each spot respectively. Vlatko Čančar, currently cooking for the Slovenian national team, also potentially factors into the race. Nnaji, though, is set to push for time at both power forward and center.

The two positions require vastly different skill sets within Denver’s system. Power forward is basically a spot up shooting and cutting role offensively. These players need to be able to switch a bit on defense, but if the Nuggets play traditional defense, the power forward isn’t asked to do an excessive amount. The center is asked to do more on both ends, operating in the middle of the floor to organize the team on both ends. On offense, Jokić is his own man, but the backup centers for Denver are often asked to operate in both pick and roll and pick and pop situations.

For Nnaji, he can be the power forward in his sleep. The Nuggets know that. They know Nnaji can be plugged into the power forward spot at any time and give Denver 15 to 20 solid bench minutes. Nnaji answered all of those questions last season.

Where Nnaji can become truly invaluable though is as the backup center. For years, the Nuggets have attempted to find solutions behind Jokić in important situations. Mason Plumlee was a credible option but got too expensive and made too many important mistakes. DeMarcus Cousins, though the Nuggets played well in his minutes, wasn’t a long term solution by any stretch.

Nnaji could be. Michael Malone spoke to the media at a point earlier this offseason and described his preference for the second unit to be a mobile, switchable unit, where all five players can sit down and guard in isolation and slow down the opposing team’s offense. To play a system like that requires a mobile, athletic big man with credible defensive chops. Nnaji checks those boxes.

Nnaji has the quickness and agility to keep up with smaller players. He’s one of Denver’s best big wing defenders as a result, forcing players like Jaylen Brown and others into tough, contested shots. This is more of a power forward skill though, given that power forward is often just thought of as a bigger wing anyway.

Nnaji has to improve as a big man. As a rebounder. As a finisher. As a more imposing rim deterrent. It may be Giannis Antetokounmpo in the video below, but he goes right on through like the 6’9″, 240 pound Nnaji isn’t even there.

The functional strength simply has to improve. Other NBA bigs feel like they can move Nnaji when in post position or around the rim looking for rebounds. There’s a certain tentativeness to Nnaji’s game, something that has helped him when crafting his outside jump shot and perimeter quickness on defense.

That tentativeness has to disappear now though. Nnaji is officially an NBA veteran. In a league growing increasingly smaller, Nnaji may often find himself to be the biggest player on the court in some lineups. For him to hold up as a center in those situations, he has to become stronger, hold his spots better on both ends of the floor, and play with some serious aggression.

Offensively though, Nnaji can still be a pick-and-pop option as his primary method of helping the offense.

Nnaji spacing the floor at the top of the key as opposed to the corner will get him more opportunities to shoot the ball. For as great of a shooter as he is, he often stuck in the corner last season while JaMychal Green operated in the pick and roll/pop. Nnaji will do it better next season if given the same opportunity.

Still, Bones will need him to set solid screens and mix in some hard rolls to the rim (again, strength). That rim gravity is a form of spacing for the offense and will help set up Bones and the rest of his teammates just as often as he finds easy shots closer to the basket.

For Nnaji, this is where improving his strength comes into play. If the Nuggets plan on running him down the middle of the lane, he will have to improve his ability to absorb contact and finish through traffic. Nnaji struggled at both last season.

In addition to finishing through contact, Nnaji must continue developing different moves and finishes around the basket, specifically with his left hand. Of the 95 shots Nnaji attempted within 10 feet of the basket last season, just five were with his left hand. Nnaji is so right hand dominant in the paint that he often contorts his body in awkward ways to shoot with his right, even when the situation calls for a left handed finish.

Spinning to his left shoulder and shooting with his right hand, rather than a lefty hook, is just asking for trouble. It also limits the scope of his scoring around the rim tremendously. All opponents have to do is sit on his right hand and contest those shots without fouling. Nnaji had his shot blocked 19 times last season, and many of the 19 looked like the possession above. Nnaji has to improve his array of moves. He will simply score more points and be more dangerous that way.

As Nnaji looks to carve out a niche in the NBA, he should seriously consider how important the small ball center has become in today’s league. Draymond Green revolutionized the position at 6’6″ with long arms. Giannis Antetokounmpo helped the Bucks win a ring by playing center. Like Zeke, Bam Adebayo is just 6’9″ and had a credible case for defensive player of the year last season. If Nnaji, a career 43.9% three-point shooter, could showcase a skill set where he runs pick and pops on one end and switches 1 thru 5 on the other, he would help Denver’s bench tremendously and make a boatload of money.

For the Nuggets, Nnaji represents everything the Nuggets need to defeat the best teams in the NBA. He’s a power forward by trade, but when other teams go small and try to run the Nuggets out of the gym, Nnaji could slide to center and help the Nuggets keep up. It’s a gamble for sure, but one that would be lucrative if Zeke could handle the pressure it would entail.

Will Zeke play more minutes at power forward or center this season? The Nuggets have plenty of other power forwards to choose from if Zeke isn’t hitting his shots. Who else do the Nuggets choose to play backup center? DeAndre Jordan? Jeff Green? Vlatko Čančar?

Nnaji has a real opportunity to carve out his NBA niche. We will see if he can take advantage of it.

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