Zeke Nnaji found it easy to stay motivated during the coronavirus pandemic.
The former Arizona forward used the elongated offseason to prove he was worthy of a first-round selection, which came to fruition Wednesday when the Denver Nuggets selected him with the 22nd overall pick of the 2020 NBA Draft.
That was a bit higher than most mock drafts projected—only fitting for a guy who entered college as a measly four-star recruit and departed as the Pac-12 Freshman of the Year.
“I feel like people have been doubting me since my high school days,” Nnaji said. “I feel like I have a chip on my shoulder. There’s so many things that motivate me and this quarantine time I felt like I know it’s so unfortunate everything that’s happening, and I’ve had people and family members that have been impacted by this, as well. But I was trying to make the most of this opportunity.”
Nnaji already had impressive tape at Arizona, where he was a relentless interior presence, but he said he added 20 pounds of muscle, honed his athleticism and smoothed his 3-point shot this offseason—all tools that should ease his transition to a league that is more perimeter-oriented than ever.
“That’s what I was doing this whole time, just getting better, putting time in the gym, improving my body, improving my shot,” Nnaji said. “I feel like I made a lot of big improvements in this time off, and I feel like I’m not going to stop there. I’m going to keep working and keep trying to push myself to continue to get better.”
The Nuggets were one of the many teams that expressed interest in Nnaji during the pre-draft process, which was done virtually this year. Nnaji worked out for Denver and figured they would be a suitor after a pair of productive interviews.
“I have confidence in myself because I know the Most High is with me, and He’s the one who’s provided me with everything.” he said. “I have the utmost faith in Him, and that’s why I have confidence in my abilities. Going back to last year even when I got to Arizona, I felt one of my goals was to get Freshman of the Year. I did, and I set my goals high, but I work really hard, so I’m able to set that work towards it. I’m just ready to work hard for the Nuggets.”
Now a rookie on a team that is coming off a run to the Western Conference Finals, Nnaji said he is willing to play whatever role the Nuggets ask of him. That could mean spending a lot of time in a complementary role at the 4 alongside superstar center Nikola Jokic.
“I‘m excited,” Nnaji said. “He’s a superstar. He’s one of the best centers in the league. His vision and his passing is incredible. He’s super talented, high IQ. I’m excited to learn from him and to get to work with him.
“If they need me to play the 4, I’ll play the 4. If they need me to step up and play the 5, I’ll play the 5. I’m just willing to do whatever it takes to win.”
Nnaji will soon sign a contract that will pay him roughly $2 million for the 2020-21 season and at least $6 million over the next three years. He said being drafted was an “incredible moment” but he won’t bask in it for too long.
The regular season is only a month away.
“It feels great because I’ve been working to get to the NBA for so long, but I know this is just the beginning,” he said. “I know that now the button resets, and it doesn’t matter where you’re drafted, now it matters how much work you put in. I’m a worker. I’m ready to work. I’m going to get better, and I’m just going to let my game do the talking.”