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Arizona basketball season player review: Zeke Nnaji

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zeke-nnaji-arizona-wildcats-review-stats-analysis-breakdown-miller-college-basketball-nba-draft-2020 Photo by Chris Coduto/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The Arizona Wildcats never got to complete their 2019-20 season, one that began with so much promise, hope and hype before ending abruptly when the coronavirus pandemic shut down college basketball (and all other sports) in March.

While we’ll never know what this team could have accomplished in the NCAA Tournament, 32 games worth of competition is more than enough to assess each individual player’s performance.

Zeke Nnaji

  • Year: Freshman
  • Height: 6-foot-11
  • Position: Power forward
  • 2019-20 statistics: 16.1 PPG, 8.6 RPG, 0.8 APG, 0.7 SPG, 0.9 BPG, 57.0% FG, 29.4% 3-pt FG, 76.0% FT

Season breakdown

Of Arizona’s four true freshmen, Nnaji was third-best entering the season in terms of his recruiting rankings (as well as hype). By the end of that lone season with the Wildcats he was Pac-12 Freshman of the Year, beating out fellow NBA Draft entrants Onyeka Okongwu of USC and Isaiah Stewart of Washington.

Nnaji exploded onto the national scene right out of the gate, scoring more points in his first four games (84) than any other player in the Sean Miller era, making 33 of his first 39 shots. He shot nearly 70 percent in nonconference play, even with opponents starting to focus their interior defense around him, something that began to have a greater impact once he got into Pac-12 competition.

League foes held Nnaji to only 50 percent shooting yet he made up for it by improving his rebounding, averaging 9.2 per game with 10 of his 14 double-doubles. He ended up leading the league with 99 offensive boards.

Turnovers may have been the only thing Nnaji struggled with as a freshman, particularly later in the season when his frustration with double- and triple teams led to him being careless with the ball. Nnaji’s 70 turnovers were one more than Deandre Ayton had in 2017-18 in almost 200 fewer minutes.

Despite starting out his brief college career overshadowed by fellow freshmen Nico Mannion and Josh Green, in the end it was Nnaji who declared for the draft first, making it official on March 31.

Best stretch of play

With 14 double-doubles and 10 games scoring at least 20 points, Nnaji had numerous great stretches of play in 2019-20. His dominance in November was the best from a statistical standpoint, but the competition and lack of expectations had something to do with that.

Much more notable was how he got things going in league play, averaging 17.7 points and 10.7 rebounds over the first six games. That included 24 offensive rebounds, four double-doubles and three 20-point games, though it also featured three losses as Arizona began 0-3 on the road in Pac-12 play.

Worst stretch of play

Nnaji only failed to score in double figures three times, and two of those games saw him attempt seven or fewer shots (he averaged 9.8 per contest). He did, however, have a few runs where even with a fair number of touches down low he didn’t make the most of those opportunities, including a four-game run in late January and early February when he shot a combined 38.1 percent from the field and averaged only 12.8 points.

Despite Arizona pulling off the Pac-12’s first conference road sweep at the Washington schools, Nnaji scored only 19 points and on 8-of-21 shooting. He also took just six foul shots, making three. The following weekend at home against the Los Angeles schools continued the rough shooting, with Nnaji going 6 of 13 in a win over USC before missing six of eight shots in an ugly loss to UCLA that saw his make all 10 free throws and pull down six offensive rebounds but fail to capitalize on his live-ball opportunities.

Quotable

Dylan Smith on Nnaji: “Zeke, man, he’s one the best freshmen in the country. It’s always good to get him the ball. So long as we get on the ball, a lot of good stuff happens there. And when he’s posting hard and he plays with energy, we’re a hard team to beat.”

What’s next?

While both Mannion and Green are pretty much consensus first-round NBA picks, per various experts, the jury is a lot more unsure about Nnaji. He could go late in the first round or early in the second round, depending on which mock draft you look at. Regardless of his slot and landing spot, though, Nnaji’s relentless motor and great finishing touch will make it so he has every opportunity to succeed at the next level.