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Arizona freshman Zeke Nnaji expected to play vs. NAU, is ‘no question’ a starter when healthy

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Photo courtesy Arizona Athletics

Unlike Devonaire Doutrive, who remains suspended, the Arizona Wildcats expect to have freshman Zeke Nnaji available Wednesday when they open the regular season against NAU.

The 6-foot-11 forward missed Friday’s exhibition vs. Chico State with a minor ankle injury but returned to practice Sunday.

“Although he practiced yesterday he’s got to be able to string together a couple of days (of practice),” Arizona coach Sean Miller said Monday. “We’re being smart with him with the big picture ahead of us.”

Miller said Arizona doesn’t have an “iron-clad” starting five yet but added that Nnaji is “no question” a starter when healthy. Whether he gets the nod Wednesday remains to be seen.

“He has to feel completely comfortable and I’m confident that he will, but we’re just not there yet,” Miller said. “I do think that there’s a real chance that he will start. If he wasn’t injured, he would have started in our last game.”

The former top-40 recruit is expected to bolster an Arizona defense that struggled against Chico State and provide a unique look offensively because of his athleticism and shooting stroke.

“He gives us more depth, quickness, can switch, can make hard plays around the basket, very good rebounder,” Miller said Friday. “None of our bigs have to play heavy minutes and that makes your defense better, but we gave up too many 3s.”

“Zeke is a beast on both ends of the floor,” added senior guard Max Hazzard. “Coming from the Big West, you don’t see guys that big, that skilled that often. I was surprised at how good he is. He still surprises me everyday and I can’t wait for all you guys to see that.”

Miller is too. He did not think Arizona played well against Chico State, attributing some of the struggles to being without Nnaji and Doutrive.

“When you go into a game like that and you have two players that you practice with every day that have risen to be among your team’s best and then all of a sudden, they’re not available, that makes everybody feel different and even myself,” Miller said.

“One of the things that we have right now is a lot of new faces and every time that we do something, we get a little bit better, a little bit more comfortable. And right now it’s now the next phase, which is games, being ready for games and learning how it feels to play in a game and adjusting. In practice, everybody’s playing. In games, you had guys that are on the court, you have guys that are out subbing for each other. So there’s a completely different feel to that.

“The Saint Mary’s scrimmage helped us because we got a really good team and we learned a lot ourselves. I really believe Chico State, the combination of both, we learned a lot more about ourselves. I don’t think that we performed well in that game. And I’m hoping, and we’ll need to, play better here on Wednesday when we play NAU.”