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The Late 20’s: Zeke Nnaji Scouting Report

Name: Ezekiel Tobechukwu “Zeke” Nnaji

Dominant Hand: Right

Age: 19.8

Height: 6’11

Wingspan: 7’1

Weight: 240 lbs

School: Arizona

Position: PF/C

ESPN Top 100 Ranking: 34

NBADraft.Net Mock Ranking: 27

Character & Upbringing

The character of a young athlete who is handed a multi-million dollar contract as a mere teenager is one of the greatest determinants in how successful of a career they will have. Some athletes are unfazed by the money and stay focused on their goals to be great at their sport, while others lose their spot in the NBA quickly after getting sidetracked by off-court distractions. The Toronto Raptors organization seems to understand the importance of drafting high-character players, and Zeke Nnaji from the University of Arizona seems to fit that mold.

Zeke is the son of Apham and Janel Nnaji, and has one younger sister, Maya. The Nnaji’s are of Nigerian descent – similarly to Masai Ujiri, and OG Anunoby – although Zeke was born and raised in Minneapolis.

Nnaji was a highly recruited player coming out of high school having posted figures of 24.1 points and 9.4 rebounds per game in his senior year. Unlike players such as Fred VanVleet, Pascal Siakam, or Terence Davis Jr., his path to the NBA has been much less turbulent. He was rated a five-star recruit by Rivals.com, and a four-star recruit by ESPN. After receiving offers to play for Arizona, Kansas, Kentucky, UCLA, and North Carolina, Nnaji decided to take his talents to the Wildcats.

Aside from basketball, Nnaji is also a music junkie. He has played the piano since the age of six, and composes his own music in his free time.

Running The Floor

Among Nnaji’s greatest strengths is his ability to run the floor like a gazelle. While not as fast as some other players, his knowledge of which lanes to fill is immaculate. While big men who can run on the fastbreak is more common in the NBA now than it was 20 years ago, it’s still impressive to see someone with a 6’11, 240-pound frame move as well as Nnaji does.

As can be seen from the clip below, Nnaji quickly realizes that his man is trailing the play, so he cuts to the open spot under the rim for an easy dunk.

Again, Nnaji is not the quickest man down the floor on the next play, but his know-how of when and where to fill the lane puts him in position to bail out his teammate, and leads to an easy left-handed layup.

Though players in the NBA are more athletic than they are in the NCAA, motor is – and always will be – a translatable skill. As long as Nnaji has that eagerness to find easy buckets, and the energy to hustle down the court when his team needs it, his ability to do so will provide him with a few easy points per game.

Size & Athleticism

Although Nnaji looks skinny, his frame is NBA-ready. According to basslinespin, the average weight of an NBA centre is 253 pounds, so at 240, Nnaji’s body is just right to play either frontcourt position.

While he may not be able to easily outmuscle opponents in the NBA the same way that he could in college, Nnaji understands his size, and leverages it well. For any muscle that he lacks, he makes up for in athleticism, with his 36-inch vertical leap. Against the Rudy Gobert’s or Joel Embiid’s of the NBA, Nnaji’s size and athleticism would be compromised, however those are not matchups that any NBA big man would find an easy time scoring against inside, nevertheless a late first round rookie.

As is shown in the play below, Nnaji is unfazed by the help defense, and converts an and-one over all five Oregon State defenders.

In the following clip, Nnaji shows his pure strength and tenacity to go up and convert the tough layup through two opposing bigs off the drive.

Rebounding

Another one of Nnaji’s bright spots is his rebounding ability – something that the Toronto Raptors struggled mightily with at the front end of the 2019-2020 season. As previously mentioned, Nnaji ripped down 9.4 rebounds per game as a senior in high school. That number wouldn’t drop off drastically as a college freshman either, where he was good for 8.6 rebounds per game. Impressively though, 3.1 of those boards came on the offensive end of the floor, which ranked 50th in offensive rebounds in the entire NCAA.

Not only does Nnaji use his size, length, and leaping ability to tear down rebounds, but he’s great at boxing out his man on either end of the floor, which will be crucial in the NBA against bigger and quicker competition.

The following two clips have his rebounding ability on full display.

Pick and Roll

Nnaji is a great finisher inside, which is what makes him such a deadly threat as a pick-and-roll roll-man. One of his tendencies is to set brush screens rather than to actually wait for contact, and then make his dash to the basket. By a virtue of not truly setting his screens properly, he has led many to believe that he’s not actually a great screen setter. Still, for the job that he does, he finds a lot of easy buckets inside. There’s an easy way to defend the brush screen by sticking the big man’s defender behind him, rather than beside him, and NBA teams will catch onto that quickly if Nnaji does not learn how to set better screens.

An example of Nnaji using the brush screen to get an easy basket is shown below.

Post Play

Post game is Nnaji’s calling card, and is where the bulk of his points come from. Though his actual post game is not fully developed yet, there’s plenty of room to grow, and the potential for him to be a great post player is oozing because of how comfortably he operates down low through double teams, and guards poking at the ball.

His post hook is solid, however he hasn’t shown off much of a post fadeaway yet. Likely, that will also develop as his shooting touch comes along, and he continues to expand his footwork.

Another highly translatable skill that Nnaji has is his ability to seal his defender so that he can retrieve the ball in the post.

The video below perfectly depicts how he understands angles, and uses his body to safely get the ball in the position he wants.

Defense

Defense is likely the biggest red flag for the Raptors when looking at Zeke Nnaji. Drafting him would imply that they are looking to move on from one – if not two – of Serge Ibaka, Chris Boucher, or Marc Gasol, who are all hitting unrestricted free agency this winter. All three of them have been defensive studs, and among the best defensive big men in the league. They were instrumental in leading the Raptors to having one of the best all-around defenses in the NBA, and that’s what allowed Nick Nurse to be so versatile with his defensive schemes.

Nnaji is not necessarily in the same echelon as those guys. He does not move his feet especially well on the perimeter, which makes it hard to switch him in any schemes involving a pick-and-roll or pick-and-pop. Moreover, putting Nnaji on the floor would invite opposing teams to attack him in the pick-and-roll or pick-and-pop, and switch him onto a smaller guard, whereby the guard could easily penetrate into the paint.

In the following clip, Nnaji has trouble containing the smaller and quicker guard, and is unable to recover in time to get the block.

Again, Nnaji has some trouble defending the pick-and-roll. It looks as though Arizona’s intent was to blitz the ball handler on the play below, however Nnaji was not nearly aggressive enough, and he allowed an easy feed inside. He then failed to recover properly, and his team gave up a wide open corner three.

Shooting

Zeke Nnaji is also not a great shooter, although he certainly has potential to improve in that area. He shoots a low volume of threes, at only 0.5 attempts per game, and knocks them down at a below-average clip: 29.4%. It’s not a fluke that some of his shots fall however, as his legitimate touch is reinforced by his 76.0% free-throw percentage. With the ability to hit shots from the elbow area, Nnaji can be a pick-and-pop threat in addition to being the solid pick-and-roll player that he already projects to be.

That being said, with the way that analytics has changed shot selection in the NBA, elbow jumpers are far less common nowadays, unless it’s a wide open look. However, help defenders can cover space so quickly now, and teams use such elaborate schemes to to defend pick-and-pop plays, so it’s unlikely that Nnaji would be hoisting a plethora of shots from mid-range. Rather, if he can continue to develop his outside shot, that’s where his presence could be felt as a pop man.

Passing & Playmaking

Zeke Nnaji’s ability – or lack thereof – to find the open teammate or handle the basketball are likely his biggest shortcomings. In the modern NBA, it’s becoming more common to have big men who are not just rebounders, shot-blockers, and interior finishers, but also guys who can create their own shot, put the ball on the floor, and find open teammates. If we look at the best big men of the NBA Bubble, three names that stand out are Anthony Davis, Bam Adebayo, and Nikola Jokic. All three have an uncanny point guard-like ability given their size, they can handle the basketball, and they can create for their teammates. While playmaking ability for a big man is not a requirement of the modern NBA just yet, it’s certainly a huge plus to have which Nnaji does not yet possess.

As can be seen from the clip below, Nnaji catches the ball at the elbow, and with a stagnant offense, he’s not capable of making a move to find an open teammate or create a shot for himself, so he dips his shoulder into his defender to create space, and gets called for the offensive foul.

Furthermore, Nnaji is shown getting double teamed in the corner off the inbound pass. He panics, and throws a dangerous pass to the top of the brink which is easily intercepted, and costs his team two points.

Why He’s Projected To Drop

Ultimately, Nnaji’s weaknesses at this point in his career are too overwhelming for him to be a lottery selection. Despite his great size and athleticism, his skills do not fit the modern game just yet. While I firmly believe that Nnaji is capable of developing into a good shooter, and that he can be a valuable stretch-5 for any NBA team, his inability to defend outside of the paint, create his own shot, or make plays for teammates are holding him back.

Modern NBA Comparison: Myles Turner

Similarly to Myles Turner when he was drafted in 2015, Nnaji has a shaky shooting touch, but possesses the ability to develop into an above average shooter just as Turner has. Both of their bodies and builds are very similar, and just like when Turner came into the league, it remains to be seen with Nnaji whether he will spend more of his minutes as a power forward or as a centre. Both players’ greatest strengths at the time of their draft stem from their size, finishing ability, and post-up game. Though Turner has developed more of a face-up game now as a 24-year old, he did not have those abilities as a young player in the NBA.

Ultimately, Myles Turner’s career thus far has been hindered by injuries and ever-changing roles. If Nnaji were to land with an elite organization such as the Toronto Raptors, there’s no doubt that he would have a long and successful NBA career.

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