Zeke Nnaji finally returns to Nuggets lineup, reveals injury
Mar 20, 2023, 12:15 PM | Updated: 12:24 pm
It was only 11 minutes of action in a late regular-season win against a cross-conference foe but something sneaky big happened in the Denver Nuggets game on Sunday.
Zeke Nnaji returned to the floor after missing over a month of action. His meager four points and five rebounds doesn’t tell the full story of how important the backup big is for the Nuggets or why he just disappeared for so long in the first place.
Nnaji is in his third season out of Arizona and sometime this winter he became the primary backup center. He’s been better in this role than anyone in the Nikola Jokic era outside of Mason Plumlee. Nnaji is likely the reason the Nuggets didn’t reacquire Plumlee ahead of the NBA trade deadline, instead, he was dealt to the rival Clippers.
Like Plumlee, Nnaji is a really solid defender with good athleticism and length. While Plumlee’s playmaking is awesome, Nnaji is a lot younger, can get out on the perimeter and motor and most importantly shoot from deep.
So why did the Nuggets splurge with some second-rounders for a backup center ahead of the deadline anyway? Well, they likely knew Nnaji was about to miss some time, making the deal on Feb. 9, just four days after Nnaji’s last played game for some time. Denver also probably wanted to see their bench with a different-looking center, a lumbering inside-out offensive-focused player in Thomas Bryant. So far Bryant has not worked out well for the Nuggets and they’ve gone back to experimenting.
Michael Malone was finally able to drop the mad scientist act over the weekend when Nnaji returned against Brooklyn. Nnaji told Mike Singer of the Denver Post that his shoulder was dislodged and a chip in cartilage was sticking into the joint causing a lot of pain. The big man is finally over those issues and went straight back to displaying what he does to make the Nuggets bench playable: stops and transition scores.
Flashes of what the Nuggets' second unit defense can be with Zeke Nnaji from last night: Switching 1-5, get stops, and run. pic.twitter.com/R0FEIE5IWW
— Harrison Wind (@HarrisonWind) March 20, 2023
Nnaji’s not a cure-all to the Nuggets issues but he’s likely their best option to hold down the paint when Jokic takes a breather. He has the best net rating among the several options so getting him back with another 10 games to ramp up is a terrific batch of good fortune. He’ll allow for the Nuggets to more easily get Jokic off his feet and let the hurt Aaron Gordon get some rest before the playoffs begin in about a month. The time will also allow Nnaji to get some reps with the bench, which is completely different from the last time he played when you factor in Bones Hyland was still on the team.
Malone and the Nuggets have now have had it cleared up over the season’s first 72 games that their bench looks best with Christian Braun, Vlatko Cančar and Nnaji playing, joined by some starters. Those four plus Bruce Brown are most likely to make up the nine-man playoffs rotation the Nuggets will use.