The Pac-12 Freshman of the Year race consisted of three big men with nearly identical numbers, but Arizona’s Zeke Nnaji got the nod over USC’s Onyeka Okongwu and Washington’s Isaiah Stewart—to his surprise.
“I mean, they’re both really great players and to be able to win the award over them, it’s really humbling and it means a lot,” Nnaji said Tuesday.
Nnaji said he received the news while watching film with assistant coach Danny Peters. He is the fifth Wildcat to win the award under Sean Miller, joining the likes of Deandre Ayton, Aaron Gordon, Stanley Johnson, and Derrick Williams.
“It means the world,” Nnaji said. “I mean, first of all, I give credit to the most high because I wouldn’t be where I am today. He’s blessed with so many opportunities and I’m extremely grateful for everything He’s done for me. But I mean, it’s something I’ve worked for for a long time, and just to be able to get this award is something I dreamed about for a while.”
Nnaji averaged 16.3 points and 8.8 rebounds per game in the regular season, leading the Pac-12 with 14 double-doubles. That consistency is likely what led the conference’s coaches to give him the edge over Stewart and Okongwu.
“It’s quite an award to win when you consider those that have won the award in the past, but this year in particular with the deep freshman class,” Miller said. “We have four of them on our own team, quite a few high school All-Americans, and quite a few players that are incredibly talented that when their time ends in college, I have no doubt that they’ll play in the NBA.
“But this is as deep of a young group of talent as maybe we’ve had in our conference. I know when Lonzo Ball and Lauri Markkanen and Markelle Fultz and those guys were here, it was quite a group... But this group reminds me of that year, and for him to stand above those players, I think it’s well deserved because he’s meant an amazing amount to our team. He’s been there game one, he’s been there game 31, and he’s given us above and beyond what we could have expected from him.”
Unlike Okongwu and Stewart, Nnaji was a four-star recruit coming out of Hopkins High School in Minnesota, though his non-five-star rating may have helped him get off to such a torrid start.
Nnaji shot 77 percent in his first eight games compared to 50 percent during conference play, teams adjusting once they realized how much of a force he is.
Rarely does Nnaji catch the ball near the basket these days without a second defender being sent his way.
“I think especially earlier on in the season, it was a lot easier because not as many people knew who I was and so they weren’t really scouting against me,” Nnaji said. “But I think as more people started hearing about me and scouting against me, that defenses were doing a lot more to try to stop me from getting the ball. I think when they do that, it also opens up a lot of opportunities for my teammates. It’s just something to work on every day in practice, double teams... and I think that we gotta to continue to work because we can definitely hurt teams with that.”