Zeke Nnaji knows his Nuggets role: “I want to be a lockdown defender”

Joe Abunassar doesn’t want to hope for it. He also digs Zeke Nnaji too much to drop a baby wing on the child’s shoulders. Or set expectations that the first round of the Nuggets pick will have to lug around like a dead weight for the next 15 years.

“One of the general managers came in and talked about him,” offered Abunassar, Impact Basketball founder and star coach to the NBA elite. And (the GM) said, ‘The worst he can be,’ although he didn’t put it that way, ‘is, okay, Channing Frye.’ Who had one very well career.

Abunassar has careers. And stars.

His roster of alumni clients includes Chauncey Billups, Kevin Garnett, Dwight Howard, Chris Bosh and Paul Pierce. He took Nnaji under his wing in Las Vegas for about five months and changed earlier this year, helping the teen build 15 pounds of muscle – no less on a vegan diet – while shaving the rough edges of footwork and shooting form.

“Look, I trained KG,” said Abunassar. “At the age of 19 he has the tools. I believe (Nnaji) will be a starter in this league for a long time. And I think what makes him really great for Denver is that he can now play for Denver – guard, bounce back and take shots. “

It’s the first to worry you. Particularly considering that the Nuggets no longer have the services of two of their best and most versatile fullbacks, Jerami Grant and Torrey Craig – sleek types who could guard the two through four spots on the floor, and even smaller fives, when topped off. arrived push.

“I told him (last week), ‘There are two guys on the Denver team with the names of (Nikola) Jokic and (Jamal) Murray who shoot a lot of basketballs,'” laughed Abunassar. “You’re not there to lead the team in scoring, brother.” You have to guard big men and you have to guard (small attackers). ‘

“The great thing about Zeke is that he can guard multiple positions. While that offensive (side) is something that he will grow into, absolutely. “

“Go against the best”

Zeke Nnaji doesn’t want to hope. But when Tim Connelly, the Nuggets’ president of basketball operations, and Calvin Booth, the team’s GM, outlined their master plan for his role, the dude couldn’t stop grinning.

“They said they really want me to be able to guard three to five, and I think I will be able to do that,” the six-foot attacker told The Post last week.

“My ultimate goal is to be able to monitor one to five consistently. I want to be a lockdown defender no matter who I’m guarding. But the most important thing right now is working on those three through five and just being versatile no matter what role I play. “

It’s not fair to expect a nineteen-year-old to come in here as a rookie and hold down everyone from Donovan Mitchell to Anthony Davis, let alone to them. But Nnaji also knows that the A-list assignments are – in the end – part of the job description, whether or not he likes it. Especially in a Western Conference full of stars.

“Oh, yeah, we talked a little bit about (big names),” said the reigning Pac-12 Freshman of the Year. ‘But I feel like I’m not one to shy away from the best. I feel like I want to compete with the best and play them out. And beat them.

“I think that’s really just my competitive side. I don’t like to lose. I want to win and dominate everything. “

The Twin Cities resident has also taken careful notes when it comes to the Nuggets’ recent roster makeover. Nnaji is eager to prove that he deserves that trust – that defensive trust above all – sooner rather than later.

“I’ve been preparing for this all my life,” said Nnaji. If I have to guard the best player on the other team, you know what? I am going to do that. And I’m going to do the best I can. I’m going to work on that a lot in practice, and do everything I can to improve so I can be that lockdown defender. “

“No one is going to help him”

Jeremy Miller doesn’t want to hope for it. But Miller, Nnaji’s AAU coach at D1 Minnesota, thinks you’ll be surprised by the guy’s handles. And that most of the Nuggets locker room, now gray playoff veterans, will fall head over heels for the new man.

“Nobody’s going to help him,” Miller said. “The veterans on (the Nuggets) are going to love him because he’s going to be a man who won’t get caught up in all the glitz and glamor.

‘He’s very grounded. They’ll be happy that this 19-year-old is going to work as hard as she does. He is not hey-look-at-me child. His parents are phenomenal people and they just really grounded him … he was raised as a renaissance man in many ways. He just has a very high character. “

Nnaji grew up in a home of musicians, athletes and disciplinaries. He didn’t have a cell phone until his high school year. His happy place off the track isn’t scrolling through Instagram or TikTok. It’s composing songs on the keyboard, learning new instruments, and expanding a Spotify library that bounces from Ray Charles to Coldplay, Stevie Wonder to Frank Sinatra, Fleetwood Mac to Bob Marley.

“The two instruments I’m learning now are harmonica and Spanish guitar,” said Nnaji, a multi-sport, multi-instrumental child prodigy who has been playing the piano since he was in first grade.

“There’s this one song, ‘Piano Man’ by Billy Joel – I (want) to play the harmonica and piano at the same time, so I have a little neck rest that goes around me.”

Miller plays a memory for you, this one from Indianapolis a few years ago. Nnaji played behind attacker Matthew Hurt on D1, who would eventually sign with Duke. But it wasn’t long before he started to grab attention as a Euro style big with reach and reach, a hidden gem that just needed to get bigger.

“Brian Snow, an analyst at 247Sports, came to look at us and said, ‘You didn’t tell me you had another pro on your team,’” Miller recalled with a chuckle.

‘We tell our big boys to push it. We tell them to shoot 3s. We tell them to step out of that traditional role of big boys. And (Nnaji) just kept on thriving with other really high level players. “

“A physical copy”

We don’t want to hope you are tired of it. But if the floor is Frye, the Nuggets could be staring at a potential skyscraper.

After all, compared to Nnaji, the pro made the 2006 NBA’s All-Rookie roster a center with the Knicks. Frye scored an average of five goals in his first eight seasons. And an eventual NBA champion, at the age of 33, as a role-player at LeBron’s Cavs.

If that’s the floor … what is it ceiling?

‘The ceiling is very high, ”said Abunassar, who worked five and a half days a week for five to six hours a day for Zeke, shooting from every angle imaginable.

“The one thing you can’t learn, and I’ve been doing this for 25 years, is his athleticism. We have expanded it well. But this child is a physical one. “