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Raptors Draft Prospect: Zeke Nnaji – 6’10″ C, 19, Arizona

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I covered an exciting guard prospect yesterday and today we cover an intriguing center out of Arizona, Zeke Nnaji.

The Raptors first spoke to Nnaji back in May and more recently at the end of September. They’ve also been in communication with his agent on several other occasions. The interest emanates from the Raptors looking for their next big man should they expect to lose the services of Serge Ibaka or Marc Gasol.  Nnaji has a strong motor, quick feet, is agile, runs like hell in transition, stop me if you’ve heard this in a Raptors prospect report before. Peep his absolutely nutty combine numbers. Big men don’t move like that, ridiculous.

Stats via Tankathon

Nnaji was one of Arizona’s strongest players over the 2019-2020 season averaging 16 points and 9 rebounds on highly efficient play. He impressed enough to win the conference Rookie of the Year award, make the PAC-12 Rookie Team, and make the All PAC-12 Team.

In spite of a decorated albeit short career as a college player, a lot of the mocks and scouting reports have consistently been rating Nnaji below the more “hyped” Wildcats, Josh Green and Nico Mannion. This categorization is flawed. Green doesn’t look like he’ll be anything other than your standard 6’6 3&D shooting guard that comes out of the draft every year. Mannion was disappointing for a player who was so widely scouted in high school and in this observer’s view, shouldn’t even be in the conversation for a first round pick given his limitations on both ends.

There are legitimate reasons why Nnaji is seen as a late first/early second round pick instead of the higher mid first round talent that I view him as. While he may be a willing passer, that doesn’t make him a good passer.

Averaging 2 turnovers to just under 1 assist in college, Nnaji is often slow to read and react to the play and he telegraphs his moves a lot. His game is currently best suited to posting up or cutting to the basket when he receives the ball rather than looking to swing it.

His willingness to pass out combined with his work ethic has me believing that he won’t be a career negative when it comes to moving the ball, but don’t expect him to ever be a Gasol level playmaker and certainly expect mistakes from him in his first couple seasons.

Most of Nnaji’s concerns come on the defensive end. His steal and block numbers are low for a college big man, and while normally those stats aren’t sole indicators of defensive ability, it is cause for concern when most other NBA-ready college bigs are averaging almost double Nnaji’s steals or blocks regardless of their defensive impact. He’s agile and has great hip-turn speed for a player of his size, but he can often get caught flat footed on the perimeter which can lead to the rest of his team scrambling for the help defence.

Some players can average low shot blocking numbers but still provide defensive cover at the rim. He’s not one of them and is simply not a rim protector. He’s long so there’s hope that he can eventually be a strong presence that deters shots, but his anticipation needs work and overall his impact is inconsistent. Some scouts even argue that he’s more suited to play the 4 because of his face-up game and his shortcomings around the rim.

What makes me optimistic regarding Nnaji’s development is that a lot of his problems on the defensive side can be fixed. He’s got a killer work ethic in addition to the physical measurements and skill to one day be a threat on that end, and he’s already mobile enough to defend on the perimeter reliably even if mistakes are to be expected. Synergy actually paints him as a positive defender as well, only allowing 0.71 points per post up possession [70th percentile] and 0.72 points per isolation possession [56th percentile] source.

By looking at his three point numbers in college, one might think that Zeke is a bad shooter. 29% and didn’t even average a single 3PA per game? Can he even stretch the floor? The answer is yes. Probably. Well, I and many scouts believe he can anyway, even if his college stats said otherwise. Zeke actually took way more threes in high school than in college, he even won a three point contest in AAU. His three point shooting drill at the draft combine was also very impressive for a big man. Here’s the video of him draining threes in the AAU three-point contest:

You’ll notice his form in these videos too: very clean, fluid, high release, no major mechanical issues that would suggest he can’t become a shooter. Of course most players can make threes in an open gym so while there’s much to like about his potential, it also leaves room for skepticism until he can actually do this in a game consistently. His free throw percentage of 76% is also above average for college bigs and bodes well for his future as a floor spacer.

Moving away from what we think Nnaji is probably capable of, let’s look at what we know he can do well. He’s uber efficient with a TS% of 63% and FG% of 57%. He absolutely hauls in transition and is aggressive in the post, but he needs to improve his strength in that area or he’ll just get bullied by NBA bigs.

He also loves these little backdoor cuts where he uses his speed to catch unsuspecting defences off guard. Calling Zeke an absolute machine on the offensive glass is an understatement, he can anticipate where the ball is going to fall to and use his bounce to get over defenders for the put back. He also busts his ass when it comes to fighting for those extra possessions.

He did a film review with ESPN’s Mike Schmitz where they emphasized a few plays in particular showcasing the below. Look at the passion, the energy. You could kill a man with those fistpumps, my goodness (Zeke almost clocks Josh Green in the third clip hilariously enough). Get him on my team. The Raptors have a great need for this type of hustle and anticipation on the glass.

Quick look at his shot chart:

Most of his shots came around the rim and in the paint where he converted a high percentage, and there’s even little flashes of an expanding mid range game (as seen below). His handle is nothing to write home about but he’s not clueless with the ball in his hands, just don’t expect anything advanced.

And hey, who doesn’t love a guy who’s talented both on the court and musically? Maybe we can see a Nick and Zeke duet for the National Anthem on opening night!

 

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