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Expert weighs in on Zeke Nnaji’s NBA draft stock, pro potential

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COLLEGE BASKETBALL: MAR 11 Pac-12 Tournament - Washington v Arizona Photo by Brian Rothmuller/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Did Arizona Wildcats freshman Zeke Nnaji make the right call by declaring for the 2020 NBA Draft? The answer is yes, according to The Athletic’s Sam Vecenie, who has Nnaji ranked 28th on his latest big board (which you should definitely check out).

“Obviously the reasons that he’s a first-round prospect right now, I don’t know that those were really going to change,” Vecenie explained. “He’s 6-11, not terrific length, doesn’t seem to be a great rim protector. He grew up playing a lot of the 4, some at the 5 and doesn’t seem like he’s developed those timing instincts from a young age, which often is the best indicator of future success as a rim protector. So you’re looking at a guy that’s probably gonna be more of a tweener 4, 5 big man.

“But I think he has a really great chance of carving out a longer-term NBA career because he has all the tools that really translate to the next level. He runs exceptionally well. Someone who runs the floor like that as well as he does, and as hard as he does, and as consistently as he does, that’s the guy that is gonna be productive in the minutes that he plays, just because he’s always going to be able to get open in some way.

“And then you throw on top of it the great touch around the basket, he has ridiculous body control for a guy that’s 6-foot-11, he can really just float around the basket, he actually changes directions while he’s in the air. These are skills that guys that are his size just typically don’t possess.”

Nnaji told ESPN that he wants to prove to NBA teams that he is a better shooter than he showed at Arizona, where he only hoisted 17 3-pointers, making just five of them.

It could be difficult to do that before the draft, as the pre-draft process is expected to be severely limited due to the coronavirus crisis, but Vecenie sees no reason why Nnaji won’t be a high level 3-point shooter one day.

“He made 76 percent of his free throws...and if you look at his release, he has absolutely great jumpshot mechanics in my opinion,” Vecenie said. “So you’re looking at a guy that’s probably gonna have to play a little bit at the 5, but when he is a 5-man, you can hopefully project that he’ll be able to get a marginal advantage on some of the bigger guys who will be able to push him around a little bit at the NBA level, despite the fact that he is really strong. It’s just kind of a different level of strength at the NBA level for some of these guys that are 7-foot-1, 250 pounds. ... (Nnaji)’s 240 pounds and does have a high level of strength on his frame, but I think there is some room for growth there as well.”

Some would argue that Nnaji should have returned to college so that he can further his development before entering the pros. And while Vecenie says that would be the right call for some players, he believes Nnaji is mature enough to hone his skills at the next level.

“I think that some kids just will develop better in situations that have structure and those kids tend to be the ones that aren’t self starters, that aren’t guys who can deal with having a lot thrown at them at once, guys who don’t deal with adversity well,” Vecenie said of the merits of returning to school.

“But everything that I’ve been told about Zeke Nnaji in regard to what NBA executives have heard, in regard to what agents have been told about him, coaches that I’ve spoken with about him, is that he actually is someone that is very well-equipped to be mature enough to handle having a million dollars by the time he’s 20 years old, to potentially fighting through adversity, to having to deal with everything that comes with mostly playing in the G League. Because we’re at a stage now in the NBA’s development track that if you go 20th, 25th, 30th overall, you’re probably gonna spend time in the G League. It’s not a death sentence. It’s not a career killer anymore.”

Another argument for Nnaji returning to school is that, with another strong season, he could have boosted his draft stock to the point that he would have been a surefire lottery pick in 2021.

But while that would mean a higher rookie salary, it could have long-term ramifications, Vecenie noted.

“He’ll be making...about $2.2 million (per year if picked in the late first round), so if he is to return and is able to rise up into the lottery, you’re talking about maybe he can make $3.5 million, so it’s the difference of like $1 million a year over the course of [his first contract],” Vecenie said.

“The problem with that is you start your free agency clock a year later. So if you’re going to be a successful NBA player, which everyone assumes they’re going to be entering the draft, especially if you’re going to be a first-round pick, the financial incentive is to get to the NBA as soon as possible so that you start your free agency clock quicker, and thus you can potentially get into that $10 million, $11 million season quicker than you would be otherwise. Essentially (by returning) you are losing a year of earning potential that could be a vastly greater year of earning potential than what the difference is in regards to going 25th versus going in the lottery.”

When asked for a player comparison, Vecenie said Nnaji reminds of him of former Nuggets forward Kenneth Faried, only taller and a much better shooter. Faried was the 22nd overall pick in 2011 and made an estimated $57 million in eight seasons in the NBA.

“I think that there is a role for that guy in today’s NBA,” Vecenie said. “Kenneth is just 30 years old and is already out of the league, and the reason that he’s out of the league right now is because he doesn’t really have the requisite skill level that someone like Nnaji does, and the requisite size to be able to guard differently that Zeke does. With Zeke, you’re talking about a guy that’s 6-foot-11, able to finish around the basket, can probably shoot at some point, and plays with such an incredible motor.”