On Saturday evening, it was announced that the Denver Nuggets and fourth-year big man Zeke Nnaji had agreed to a four-year, $32 million contract extension, according to Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN. The deal includes a player option for the 2027-28 season, meaning the Nuggets have locked in Nnaji at a reasonable contract amount for the next four seasons.

The announcement may have caught some by surprise, but the deal makes a tremendous amount of sense for both sides.

Nnaji, 22, has played in just 136 regular season games and 12 playoff games in his NBA career. Nnaji’s 1,853 career regular season minutes rank 32nd in his draft class, and the Nuggets have certainly played it slow with Nnaji in the last three years. Part of that is Nnaji’s own doing, as he has struggled to stick at a position in Denver’s rotation. He has played small forward, power forward, and center in each season and appears to be trending toward a small ball center role behind superstar Nikola Jokić. Nnaji has also dealt with injury issues in each of the three seasons and has struggled to stay available for a prolonged period of time.

So, why the contract extension?

At 22 years old, Nnaji remains one of the youngest players in the Nuggets rotation. He still has a ways to go, but the Nuggets believe Nnaji has more to offer going forward. At 6’9” with a strong, athletic frame, Nnaji is already one of the best “switch” defenders in the NBA, affording the Nuggets defensive flexibility when he’s on the court. He also played well during the preseason, averaging 9.2 points, 4.8 rebounds, 2.0 stocks (steals + blocks) in 19.1 minutes per game. Nnaji also shot 23-of-28 from the free throw line this preseason, good for 82.1% from the charity stripe. Those are fairly productive numbers and showcase a level of growth and maturity in the 22-year-old big man.

Nnaji’s also one of Denver’s only true backup bigs in the rotation this year after the departure of Jeff Green in free agency. DeAndre Jordan is also available but limits Denver’s flexibility on both ends of the floor. With Nnaji, there’s still a level of growth and development that can take place with a runway of playing time. The Nuggets believe extended minutes and a consistent role will help solidify that vision.

If things work out with Nnaji, then the Nuggets will have another playoff caliber rotation player on their roster, somebody that could replace Green’s playoff role in a fairly straightforward manner.

If things don’t work out, then the Nuggets have another angle.

The new CBA limits financial flexibility for teams that pay the most amount of money. With Jokić, possibly Jamal Murray, and Michael Porter Jr. under contract, the Nuggets have very few ways to get better, especially in free agency. The two best ways for the Nuggets to improve/stay elite are in the NBA Draft and on the trade market. The Nuggets have already pinpointed areas in the draft where they could improve, and adding Julian Strawther, Jalen Pickett, and Hunter Tyson was the product of that strategy.

The other area is the trade market. Letting Nnaji walk would have been a difficult proposition. He’s still a valuable prospect that many teams will value in the modern NBA. Even if the Nuggets look to go a different direction than Nnaji in the future, they still have the ability to trade his contract. The Nuggets could theoretically aggregate his roughly $8 million annual salary with other players on the roster to acquire a different rotation option. They can’t do that if Nnaji walks away in free agency for nothing, and the largest contract the Nuggets currently have signed outside of the starting five is Reggie Jackson at $5 million.

Ultimately, the Nuggets vision is for Nnaji to be part of the team, which is the primary reason for signing the extension. There’s reason to believe he will play a part in the 2024 NBA Playoffs, and it’s better to do so while not thinking about the free agency and contract that comes a few weeks later.

The Nuggets have consistently done right by their players, even if it means taking a chance every now and then. This qualifies as a low risk chance that could prove fruitful in the near future. Nnaji will start the season in the Nuggets rotation, and he might be averaging as many as 20 minutes per game by the end of the season if things go right. If things go wrong, then it’s a contract figure that isn’t exactly the end of the world with the new TV rights deal being signed that will increase the salary cap by a significant margin.

Here’s to Zeke Nnaji more than earning the contract he just signed.