Nuggets rookie Zeke Nnaji sets new career-high with 16 points: “He’s a really smart basketball player”

Just 26 games and a handful of practices together, Nuggets rookie Zeke Nnaji knew enough about Facu Campazzo’s devilish passing to keep his hands up.

With :49 seconds left in the first quarter of Sunday’s eventual win over the Lakers, Campazzo baited everyone on the court left, his eyes deceiving the pass he already knew was coming. The crafty Argentinian fired a no-look pass that nearly buzzed Kyle Kuzma’s face before settling in the confident hands of Nnaji, Denver’s latest 3-point sniper.

“My hands were ready,” Nnaji said. “I saw it was a difficult angle. And Facu’s looking over there. All the sudden he just throws the pass, and it goes right by Kuzma’s head. He couldn’t do anything. I was like, ‘OK, I gotta make sure this is a highlight for him.’ I had to make the shot.”

— Mike Singer (@msinger) February 15, 2021

Nnaji – a strong, poised, confident perimeter shooter – didn’t let his teammate down. It was one of four 3-pointers Nnaji drained as part of Denver’s streak-snapping 122-105 win over the defending champion Lakers. Nnaji, who’s now connected on 9-of-15 3-pointers to start his NBA career, set a new career-high with 16 points and three rebounds off the bench. His confidence, he said, stemmed from extra shooting and a dedication to film work.

Nnaji played nearly 24 minutes Sunday, which was both a testament to Nuggets coach Michael Malone’s confidence in him but also a matter of practicality. Paul Millsap didn’t return after suffering a left knee sprain in the first half.

It’s the second time in three games he’s knocked down four 3-pointers after setting a then-career-high with 14 points on Wednesday against Cleveland. But what was perhaps more noteworthy than his shooting was his readiness to step in defensively for Millsap, which on Sunday meant checking LeBron James.

“In this business, you never know when your number is going to be called,” said Malone. “You better be ready when it is called. That’s what I’m proud of most.”

Nnaji held his own on several one-on-one possessions against the ageless All-Star and stayed down on numerous perimeter closeouts vs. James and Kuzma.

Without Gary Harris (adductor), P.J. Dozier (hamstring), Will Barton (personal) and then Millsap for the second half, Denver got contributions from Nnaji, Campazzo, fellow rookie RJ Hampton and even reserve forward Vlatko Cancar. All played valuable minutes in extending Denver’s winning streak to three while halting the Lakers’ streak at seven.

Campazzo tied a career-high with 15 points to pair with his four assists. The Nuggets are now 4-0 this season in the four games Campazzo’s scored at least 10 points.

And though Campazzo’s scoring and defensive energy had a marked effect on the game, it’s Nnaji’s who’s still blossoming into the prospect the Nuggets drafted in the first round this past offseason.

“As he continues to mature and understand the NBA, he’s going to have a chance to be one of those versatile defenders,” Malone said. “He can guard some smaller wings, some bigger guys, he’s athletic, he talks and he’s a really smart basketball player.”

Of course, Malone isn’t the only one who’s noticed his basketball acumen.

“He is a really good listener,” said Nikola Jokic. “He is really willing to listen. … I think I can help him a little bit.”

As Jokic has become more and more comfortable in his role as the franchise’s centerpiece, it’s also meant sharing his insights with younger players. And no one is as unselfish as the Joker.

“He’s the best passing big man the league has ever had,” Nnaji said. “His IQ is off the charts, and there’s so much you can learn from him. Things that he sees on the floor, no one else can see.”

And depending on the extent of Millsap’s injury, the 6-foot-9 stretch forward out of Arizona has made a compelling case for more playing time. Behind the scenes, Nnaji’s known as a worker and a student of the game. As if that didn’t fit into Denver’s well-established culture enough, he’s also not one to make excuses.

His acclimation to the NBA wasn’t slowed despite not having a Summer League or a traditional training camp. He came to the Nuggets ready to shoot and ready to defend.

“It may be tough circumstances that I’m in right now, but everyone’s going through it,” Nnaji said. “I have no right to complain.”

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