We knew Arizona’s best player would be a freshman this season, but most would have assumed it would have been one of the two McDonald’s All-Americans in Nico Mannion and Josh Green.
And while those two have been solid in their own right, 6-foot-11 forward Zeke Nnaji has been the brightest star so far.
Through three games, the former four-star recruit (wow, he was underrated) is averaging 21.4 points and 6.7 rebounds per game.
Here’s how UA’s recent lottery picks fared in their first three games:
- Deandre Ayton: 18.7 PPG, 11.7 RPG
- Lauri Markkanen: 20.3 PPG, 6.7 RPG
- Stanley Johnson: 11.7 PPG, 5.7 RPG
- Aaron Gordon: 14.3 PPG, 9.3 RPG
What’s more is Nnaji’s efficiency. He is a scorching 26 for 32 (.812) from the field and 13 of 16 (.813) from the free-throw line. Among all 20+ point scorers in the country, Nnaji has the highest field goal percentage by a long shot. The second-highest is Baylor’s Jared Butler (.696).
Nnaji said the key to his efficiency is his teammates getting him the ball in good spots. There is some truth to that. Sixteen of his 26 field goals have been assisted.
But he has done his part by doing a good job making himself available, always seeming to know when to dive to the rim, allowing him to soar for dunks, layups, and putbacks.
And, yes, he can also be used as a floor-spacer, and has shown good patience, footwork, and the ability to score with both hands when thrown the ball on the low block.
“He plays 110 percent,” said forward Ira Lee. “You guys look at the way he’s scoring, a lot of it’s around the basket. but you gotta look at the jumpers he’s making, He’s making over 90 percent of his jumpers, so he’s efficient, he’s playing hard, he’s playing the game the right way and he’s being rewarded by the basketball gods.”
Here’s a look at Nnaji’s shot charts for all three games. (Note: blacks are makes, reds are misses, and dunks and layups are displayed on the left).
Nnaji also gives Arizona something it has lacked at times: a zone-buster. San Jose State pressured the ball with its matchup zone, and Nnaji was continually able to find the soft spots—usually along the baseline or free-throw line.
He posted 26 points on 8-of-8 shooting along with a pair of assists, making all three of his mid-range jumpers.
“Obviously Zeke Nnaji was just fantastic,” said coach Sean Miller. “How many players can go 8 for 8 from the field in any game, 10 from 12 from the foul line—and he had 11 rebounds, six on offense, 26 points in only 21 minutes. He was clearly dominant. And he has a knack of getting fouled. It really showed in tonight’s game. He did a real good job against their zone in the middle. His teammates found him and he delivered.”
Miller said Nnaji reminds of him of the way Derrick Williams used to torch zone defenses.
“He can really hurt you in the high post,” Miller said after the SJSU game. “But he doesn’t have to do it just by shooting. He can drive, so he’s the ideal player to get the ball anywhere in and around the rim or anywhere in and around key area against the zone because (when) he turns a lot of good things will happen. He had a couple good passes tonight as well.”
Maybe this kind of start from Nnaji is surprising to folks outside the program, but those within saw it coming a mile away.
“Zeke is one of those underrated guys where he comes into practice every single day, brings us energy,” Green said. “So what you guys seen have seen from Zeke, he deserves it 100 percent. It’s amazing playing with him. I love playing with him. I love playing with high energy and getting up on defense and having him just bring that energy every single day, it’s amazing and he’s just a great kid on and off the court.”
Mannion added: “He’s been doing it since summer, every practice. So I mean to a lot of guys watching now, it’s a surprise, but this kind of what we’ve been expecting he can bring for us.”