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‘The sky’s the limit’ for Arizona freshman Zeke Nnaji

Photo courtesy Arizona Athletics

As far as first impressions go, they don’t get better than this.

Zeke Nnaji dropped 20 points in 20 minutes, on a super efficient 9-of-12 shooting, against NAU, the most a freshman has scored in a season-opener for the Arizona Wildcats in the Sean Miller era.

More than Deandre Ayton. More than Derrick Williams. More than Lauri Markkanen.

“I’m not trying to force anything, just trying to play within the offense,” Nnaji said. “Tonight just happened to be my night.”

That a freshman posted such gaudy numbers in 2019-20 is not much of a surprise. Arizona’s recruiting class was ranked No. 6 for a reason.

However, that it was Nnaji, and not McDonald’s All-Americans Nico Mannion or Josh Green, to put up that stat line might have surprised some folks.

It depends who you ask.

“If you ask me, this is not too surprising to say the least,” said UA forward Stone Gettings. “I have been going at him for the past three, four months now. ... He’s been killing it every day.”

“He played tonight like he plays all the time,” Miller added.

It then makes you wonder how 247Sports placed 39 freshmen ahead of Nnaji in its 2019 recruiting rankings.

“I think Zeke was one of high school’s best players a year ago,” Miller said. “He wasn’t a McDonald’s All-American, but I know that there’s different reasons for that. ... It is what it is. Sometimes it’s hard to pick the right guys, but he’s definitely one of the best freshmen in college basketball. And we have a couple of them but he’s one of them for sure.”

What makes Nnaji special? Let’s start with his frame. He is 6-foot-11, 240 pounds with a 7-foot-1 wingspan and a combination of strength, agility, and explosiveness that Miller likened to former All-American and No. 2 overall NBA draft pick Derrick Williams.

Mind you, Williams was 6-foot-8 at best.

“He’s not a big, strong guy that can’t move,” Miller said of Nnaji. “He’s a big, strong guy that can really move.”

And do lots of other things. Wednesday alone, Nnaji...

  • Finished with both hands on the low block, flashing some sound footwork
  • Soared for a pair of tip-ins
  • Dunked in transition
  • Swished a face-up, mid-range jumper
  • Used every inch of his vertical and wingspan to successfully alter a high-arcing layup
  • Swiped a ball-handler on the perimeter and went coast-to-coast for a layup

“You see how explosive he is and strong,” Miller said. “And as much as we love him on offense, defensively he really gives us length, quickness, and size and makes us a much deeper team. So I thought he was really good.”

About the only thing Nnaji didn’t do is make a 3-pointer, though he came awfully close. His lone attempt, from the top of the arc, rattled out.

“He’s a capable 3-point shooter,” Miller said. “If he’s wide open...there’s no reason why he shouldn’t take it.”

NAU is not stiff competition by any means, but Nnaji’s performance only affirmed what Miller saw in a secret scrimmage against No. 20 Saint Mary’s in October.

“One of the things that really stood out is they fouled him 10 times,” Miller said. “Saint Mary’s ... are experienced, they’re well-coached, they’re disciplined. Just kind of watching him in that scrimmage, it really set the tone for how we’re thinking about the importance of him on our team.”

When Nnaji was nursing a sore ankle last week, Miller said the freshman was “no doubt” a starter when healthy.

Now we know why.

“The sky’s the limit for Zeke,” Miller said. “If you talk to our players, he’s one of our team’s hardest workers, and he’s really gotten a lot better over the last year and a half. Go back to his junior year of high school to where he is today, he has a very, very bright future and I’m certainly glad we have him.”