The Arizona Wildcats welcomed another Nnaji sibling to the family on May 10 when Maya Nnaji committed to the women’s basketball team. The 6-foot-4 forward out of Hopkins, Minnesota is the No. 7 player in the 2022 class, the highest-ranked recruit the program has ever landed.
Her brother Zeke, now with the Denver Nuggets, attended Arizona in 2019-20 and was the Pac-12 Freshman of the Year in his lone season as a Wildcat. Seeing Zeke thrive in Tucson was a bonus for Maya, but the reality is that she chose the UA because it checked every box she was looking for in a school.
She wants to be a doctor and the UA offers a program that will allow her to complete pre-med and medical school in seven years, which she says is “more efficient and will be better for me,” noting that it will also allow her to attend medical school while playing in the WNBA if she’s able to break into the league.
She is also impressed by Arizona’s skyward trajectory under Adia Barnes, their track record of player development, their strength-and-conditioning program, their basketball-crazed fan base and how they can accomodate her vegan diet.
I caught up with Maya to talk about that and lots more. Here’s a Q&A, which has been lightly edited for brevity and clarity.
Ryan Kelapire: The first thing you mentioned is that you want to be a doctor. What kind of doctor do you want to be?
Maya Nnaji: “I haven’t decided. I’m thinking between pediatrician, because I love working with kids, and then orthopedic doctor because I play sports and that’d be cool to help athletes come back from injury and to help people know more about how they can heal themselves or how they can stay injury free. And then also dermatology because they have more realistic and better working hours, like 9 to 5. That’s better so I can spend more time with my family.”
RK: You also mentioned the strength and conditioning program. What stood out about Arizona in that aspect?
MN: “Their new strength coach Jaime (Fernandez), he showed us his whole program and all the exercises and stuff they do. Lots of prehab stuff to prevent injuries, and I’ve seen the results that they were getting. I knew that if I came there he could help me get stronger, faster and help to transform my body so I’m ready to play in college.”
RK: What did Zeke tell you about his experience at Arizona and how much did that factor in your recruitment?
MN: “When Zeke first went to Arizona, the women’s program had already been recruiting me. It was never like, ‘Oh, because Zeke’s going there, I’m definitely going to Arizona.’ We’re two different people, but his experience obviously allowed me to come see what the community is like. I really liked it there and he really loved playing in McKale Center and seeing everyone pack the stands and everything. He loved the fans, he liked the community and the place he stayed at and the whole campus and everything, so that just helped me know that I’m gonna be comfortable there because he liked it there.”
RK: Arizona has been recruiting you for a while, but did their Final Four run change how you viewed the program?
MN: “Going into this recruiting process, it was never like, ‘I want to go to a school that’s the highest ranked in the country, that wins championships.’ I wasn’t really focused on the ranking right now because I knew wherever I go, I would be able to affect the program in a positive way and help bring the rankings up. We had a couple of Zoom calls with Arizona before the Final Four, and with one of them I was like, ‘Yeah, I think I’m really leaning towards Arizona.’ And then they made that Final Four run and it kind of sealed the deal because I just saw how much of a family their team was, I saw how hard they fought and they proved all the doubters wrong.”
RK: So why was it appealing for you to go a school that is building something rather than one that’s already established?
MN: “I want to build a legacy and inspire the fan base. I want to turn the program around. I feel like that’s hard work and that’s not as easy versus going to a place that’s already established. I’ll have a bigger challenge. I know it’s going to be harder but it’s going to be more fun as well and I’m just excited to get to work. I love working hard. My parents have instilled hard work in me and my siblings, so I always have big goals and one of those things is to turn a program around. I know I can do it if I just work hard.”
RK: What’s appealing about Adia as a coach?
MN: “Coach Adia is a great coach. They started recruiting me at a young age...and the program was really not that good when she started recruited me, and they got better and better every year and then she led them to a Final Four. That was a huge thing. They’re making history and I just saw how she was helping improve the program and like change the whole culture of everything as well. That’s cool and I wanted to play for a coach that that has that ability to do that.
“She’s a really transparent and genuine person. My talks with her on the phone, the conversations are like 10 or 15 percent basketball. The rest, we’re talking anything. I feel like she’s really relatable and easy to talk to and I know she works really hard and I know that she pushes her girls really hard. And seeing her make that run in the tournament, she didn’t care about what the critics were saying about her team. She just told them to go out there and have the underdog mentality and they started doing great things. So just seeing how she inspired everyone, that was cool to see. I just want to play for a coach that I know is gonna have my back and I know is gonna fight as hard as I am.”
RK: You said in your commitment video that you want to play for a coach who looks like you. Why is that important to you?
MN: “Representation is really important. I know Adia, we have a lot of things in common. I have goals of things that she’s already accomplished, like playing professionally and winning a (WNBA) championship and going to the NCAA Tournament, all those things. And then top of her being a Black female coach, just knowing that she can understand me more than any other type of coach could because she knows what it’s like to be like me.”
RK: How many times have you visited Tucson and what was your impression of it?
MN: “Three times, I think. I love the restaurants they have. They have lots of options and I love the Mexican food that they have there as well. The weather’s nice and warm, so that’s really awesome. The whole campus is really nice. The facilities are super nice. The community is really close knit and everyone comes to support Arizona sports because they don’t have any professional teams in Tucson. It can be like a home away from home.”
RK: For Arizona fans that have never you seen you play, how would you describe your game?
MN: “I’m like a stretch 4. So, I can shoot the 3, I can take you off the bounce. If I have a bigger person on me, I’ll play more on the perimeter. But if I have a mismatch, then I’ll go in the post. I can dominate inside and outside. Shot blocker, rebounder, and a leader on the court. I just want to be a positive role model to all the little fans and people watching me.”
RK: What do you hope to accomplish in your senior year of high school before you get to Arizona?
MN: “I’m always working in the gym on expanding my range or consistently improving my ball handling, improving my strength and quickness and agility. And then my goal for the my senior year is I want to finish off with a state championship win and then just get in the gym. I’m gonna start the strength program before I even get to Tucson so I can be ahead of the game, so that I can come here and have an impact right away.”
RK: You talked about player development. What stood out about Arizona or what do they do that’s different from the other schools that were recruiting you?
MN: “Their playing style really fits my own playing style. Their bigs that can handle the ball, they let them come up on the perimeter. I want to be able to be used to the fullest of my capabilities. And if I can shoot the 3, I want to be able to play for a program that allows me to come on the perimeter and take someone off the dribble or shoot 3. And then Coach Adia was showing me their player development drills and they put all their bigs through the guard drills if they can handle it. They develop every player the same and that was huge. I want to be able to improve my guard and post skills so I can be ready for the next level. Arizona definitely does that.”
RK: You said you want to play in the WNBA, so was it a big deal to see that Aari McDonald was a top-3 pick?
MN: “Yeah, for sure. It’s always been a dream of mine to play in the WNBA, so seeing that they have an alumna that got to that level and such a high pick, that’s amazing and that’s something I want to do as well—be picked in the first round, like a top-5 pick.”
RK: In your commitment video, you almost gave Adia a heart attack because you were hinting that you were going to commit to a different school. What happened there?
MN: “We were just leading her on the whole Zoom call (laughs). We were trying to act like this is the end of the road. I was saying that I’m sorry I can only go to one school, thank you guys so much for recruiting, thank you for the relationship you guys have built with me, I really appreciate all the time you put into me. And then I said: ‘You guys are gonna be seeing a lot of me over the next years.’ I didn’t really mean it as a hint at Oregon or Stanford or anything but I guess she took it that way. We unzipped our jackets and showed our Arizona gear and she was shocked.”
RK: Zeke played the national anthem on the piano at the Red-Blue Game. Do you have any talents like that?
MN: “Yeah, I love to sing. I’ve sang the national anthem before at a few of my games so I could possibly do that in Tucson too. I also love painting, reading and writing. I have a lot more hobbies outside of basketball, I just don’t have a lot of time to dedicate to them. But I’ve been super blessed with so many gifts and talents, and to be able to share that in front of the fans before a game, that would be really cool.”
RK: Your sister (Josie, class of 2025) was offered by Arizona in January. Are you going to recruit her to Arizona or just let her go through her own process?
MN: “Obviously she has her own path and all that, so however that works out, but I’m definitely going to be helping Arizona recruit her. I really want her to come play and that’d be super fun to stay in the dorms with her and play with her on the court. That’d be awesome.”
RK: Last thing. Arizona fans loved the energy Zeke played with when he was a Wildcat. Are you going to bring that to Tucson as well?
MN: “Yeah, I think so too. When he gets an and-one, he’s screaming, he’s pumped up. I do that sometimes too. I love playing with energy. I love communicating. I think the game is more fun and more fun to watch when you play like that.”