Zeke Nnaji

Northwest Notes: Thunder, KAT, Malone, Nuggets, Nnaji

As the NBA’s youngest team, the Thunder have didn’t have high external expectations entering 2022/23. However, their rebuild has taken significant steps forward thanks to a strong foundation of Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Josh Giddey and Jalen Williams, and Seerah Sohi of The Ringer believes that Oklahoma City might have the most interesting team in the league.

Despite prioritizing player development over immediate success, the Thunder — who still possess several additional draft picks in the future — find themselves in the play-in mix with just two games remaining on their schedule. Sohi points out that Chet Holmgren, last year’s No. 2 overall pick, is scheduled to return next season and could fill a void in the middle. She also notes that the team’s situation seems similar to Memphis a few years ago — a rising upstart that might shoot up the standings in ’23/24.

Here’s more from the Northwest:

  • After attempting just three shots in the Timberwolves‘ worst loss of the season on Sunday against the tanking Trail Blazers, Karl-Anthony Towns spoke to head coach Chris Finch to ensure they would be on the same page going forward, writes Jon Krawczynski of The Athletic. “We had a conversation,” Towns told reporters after scoring 22 points and grabbing 14 rebounds in an essential victory over the Nets. “We have a great relationship, so that conversation obviously paid dividends tonight. We had a good conversation about philosophies. We got it done today.”
  • Head coach Michael Malone ripped the Nuggets‘ effort against the Rockets after getting blown out on Tuesday night, calling the team “soft,” according to Mike Singer of The Denver Post. “We had a chance to clinch number one (seed) tonight and we talked about it this morning, the opportunity at hand,” Malone said. “And we definitely did not take that opportunity seriously because the way we played tonight was unacceptable playing like that, this late in the year. If that’s how we’re going to play, we’ll be out in the first round. Easy. Easy.” The Nuggets wound up clinching the top seed in the West for the first time in franchise history last night after Memphis lost to New Orleans.
  • Nuggets big man Zeke Nnaji missed his second straight game on Tuesday due to a knee injury, but it’s not considered serious, reports Chris Dempsey of Altitude Sports (Twitter link). The third-year forward/center is expected to return to the team’s second unit for the postseason.
  • Nnaji (right knee sprain) and the Nuggets‘ entire starting lineup — Jamal Murray (right thumb sprain), Nikola Jokic (right calf tightness), Michael Porter Jr. (left heel injury management), Aaron Gordon (right shoulder inflammation) and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope (non-COVID illness) — are listed as questionable for Thursday’s matchup with the Suns, per Gerald Bourguet of PHNX Sports (Twitter links).

Nuggets Notes: Malone, Jackson, Bryant, Nnaji, Murray

The Nuggets remain atop the Western Conference despite losing five of their last seven games. Coach Mike Malone says it’s time for his team to start playing at a championship level as the postseason approaches, he told Mike Singer of the Denver Post.

“That’s not up to our standards,” he said of the team’s recent stretch. “This is gonna sound weird for most people, but more important than the wins and losses, is how we’re playing. Yeah, we want to win every night, but as I told our players yesterday, with 10 games to go now, it’s all about getting back to playing and developing championship habits. We got away from that.”

We have more on the Nuggets:

  • Reggie Jackson has shot 31.4 percent since he signed as a free agent. Thomas Bryant has averaged just 9.9 minutes since being acquired from the Lakers. Malone says he’s closer to deciding whether they’ll be part of the postseason rotation. “You have to give them an honest look. Can’t just be one or two games. You have to give them an extended look to see what you have,” Malone told Jake Fischer of Yahoo Sports. “But now with 10 games to go, we’ve gotta find a group and a rhythm and give them some opportunities to formulate that on-court chemistry moving forward. And I have a pretty good idea of who that is.”
  • Zeke Nnaji is also getting a look late in the season after returning from a shoulder injury that sidelined him for six weeks, according to Singer. In his first game back, the 22-year-old power forward played 12 minutes and contributed four points, five rebounds and a block against Brooklyn. Malone said Nnaji made the second unit more athletic and versatile defensively.
  • Jamal Murray has averaged 35.8 minutes per game this month despite dealing with right knee inflammation and occasional left knee soreness. Malone said Murray’s health is being monitored on a regular basis, Singer writes.  “It’s a daily conversation with Jamal, the training staff,” Malone said. “See where he’s at, not just physically, but mentally as well.”

Nuggets’ Zeke Nnaji Out At Least Two More Weeks

Nuggets forward Zeke Nnaji will remain sidelined due to a right shoulder sprain until at least mid-March. The team announced today (via Twitter) that Nnaji will have the injury reevaluated in two weeks.

Nnaji wasn’t a regular part of Denver’s rotation early in the season, but had started to play a little more often in the weeks leading up to his injury, which has kept him on the shelf since February 5. For the season, the 22-year-old has appeared in 44 games, averaging 5.1 points and 2.3 rebounds on .572/.289/.667 shooting in 13.3 minutes per night.

It’s unclear what sort of role Nnaji will have if and when he’s ready to return. Vlatko Cancar and Jeff Green are among the Nuggets forwards who have played increased roles in his absence. Denver also acquired center Thomas Bryant a few days after Nnaji went down, so there may no longer be a path to some of the minutes he was getting as a small-ball five.

Nnaji is in the third year of his rookie contract and will become extension-eligible for the first time this offseason. If he doesn’t get a new deal later this year, he’d be on track for restricted free agency in the summer of 2024.

Northwest Notes: Gordon, Jackson, Dunn, Timberwolves

Nuggets head coach Michael Malone told reporters, including Mike Singer of The Denver Post (Twitter link), that there’s no firm timeline for Aaron Gordon to return from his rib injury.

Based on Malone’s wording, the team is taking Gordon’s injury one day at a time, but he was ruled out for the sixth consecutive game on Sunday, tweets Singer. Reserve big man Zeke Nnaji was also listed as out with a shoulder injury.

Gordon is having a career year for the Nuggets, averaging 17.3 PPG, 6.9 RPG and 2.9 APG on .587/.397/.623 shooting through 49 games (30.3 MPG). Denver has a five-game lead on Memphis for the No. 1 seed in the West, so the team will likely be cautious with Gordon in an effort to get him back to full strength for the playoffs.

Here’s more from the Northwest:

  • The Nuggets signed guard Reggie Jackson after he was bought out by the Hornets. Typically players acquired on the buyout market don’t have much of an impact on their new teams, but Jackson could be critical for a Nuggets team whose bench unit has struggled all season long, Singer writes for The Denver Post (subscriber link). “You just want to play well,” Jackson said. “They brought me here for a reason. Part of me is like, ‘I don’t want to mess it up. Let’s keep it rolling.’”
  • Kris Dunn is making an immediate impact for the Jazz after they signed him to a 10-day contract, according to Andy Larsen of The Salt Lake Tribune (subscriber link). After notching 11 points, one rebound, one assist and two steals in 16 minutes in his Jazz debut versus Oklahoma City, Dunn followed that up with 15 points, eight assists, seven boards, one steal and one block in 23 minutes versus San Antonio. Utah was victorious in both efforts, with Larsen saying the veteran guard was arguably the team’s second-best player against the Spurs on Saturday.
  • In the Timberwolves‘ latest injury report (Twitter link), three key rotation players are questionable for tonight’s game in Golden State. Center Rudy Gobert is sick, guard Jaylen Nowell has left knee tendinopathy, and forward Taurean Prince is dealing with a personal matter.

Scotto’s Latest: Hart, Knicks, Thybulle, Prince, Nuggets, Suns

The Knicks are among the teams with interest in Trail Blazers wing Josh Hart, according to Michael Scotto of HoopsHype. Previous reports have linked the 27-year-old to the Cavaliers and possibly the Heat.

Hart is expected to decline his $12.96MM player option for 2023/24, which is non-guaranteed, in search of a long-term deal. His cap hit for ’22/23 is also $12.96MM.

As Scotto notes, Hart won a national championship in college at Villanova with Knicks guards Jalen Brunson and Ryan Arcidiacono. Through 51 games (33.4 MPG), he’s averaging 9.5 PPG, 8.2 RPG, 3.9 APG and 1.1 APG on .504/.304/.731 shooting.

The Knicks have a number of options for potentially matching Hart’s salary in a trade. However, since the Blazers are unlikely to be interested in Derrick Rose or Evan Fournier, combining some smaller contracts could be in play — Cam Reddish and Obi Toppin would work, for example.

Here’s more from Scotto:

  • Sixers wing Matisse Thybulle is drawing a significant amount of interest around the NBA. In addition to the Warriors, Kings and Hawks, the Pacers, Trail Blazers, Bucks, Mavericks, Hornets, Raptors and Suns have all had exploratory conversations with Philadelphia regarding the former first-round pick, Scotto reports. A two-time All-Defensive Second Team member, Thybulle is playing a career-low 12.1 minutes per game in ’22/23 and will hit restricted free agency if he’s tendered a $6.28MM qualifying offer, Scotto notes.
  • The Nuggets are interested in Timberwolves forward Taurean Prince, sources tell Scotto. Prince’s cap hit this season is $7.3MM and he has a non-guaranteed $7.65MM cap hit for ’23/24. In addition to Bones Hyland, the Nuggets are also open to moving Zeke Nnaji for a roster upgrade, sources tell HoopsHype. Prince has dealt with injuries in ’22/23, but has posted a rock-solid .479/.389/.833 shooting line in 33 games (21.1 MPG) off Minnesota’s bench. Ish Smith ($4.73MM) would likely be included if one of Hyland ($2.2MM) or Nnaji ($2.6MM) were moved for Prince due to salary-matching rules.
  • When Scotto asked Suns forward Cameron Johnson about his impending restricted free agency, he suggested he hopes to remain in Phoenix going forward. “I love being in Phoenix,” Johnson replied. “I love the team, the staff, and the city. The organization has treated me really well to this point. Whatever the future holds, the future holds. Phoenix has really become a home to me. These guys have become my brothers, which from my understanding, is not something you should take for granted in professional sports.”

Western Notes: Spurs Trade, Mavs, Kemba, Nnaji, M. Brown

The Spurs received $1.5MM from the Celtics as part of Thursday’s Noah Vonleh trade, according to ESPN’s Bobby Marks (Twitter link). As Marks lays out, the deal resulted in cash savings for both teams.

Because Vonleh’s cap hit is no longer on their books, the Celtics will save about $7.1MM on their projected luxury tax bill, so sending out just $1.5MM to realize those savings was a no-brainer for Boston.

As for the Spurs, they’ll only owe Vonleh about $28K in salary for the two days he spends on waivers, but will have to pay Gorgui Dieng an additional $992K for the rest of the season, since his salary was fully guaranteed. Still, factoring in the $1.5MM in cash that they got from Boston, the Spurs will come out about $480K ahead after waiving both players — on top of that, they have a newly opened roster spot, which they could use to take fliers on 10-day signees.

The draft pick the Spurs sent to the Celtics in the deal is San Antonio’s top-54 protected 2024 second-rounder, tweets Marks.

Here’s more from around the West:

  • Mavericks head coach Jason Kidd didn’t rule out the possibility of the team bringing back Kemba Walker on a 10-day contract after waiving him earlier today, tweets Brad Townsend of The Dallas Morning News. The team now has an open roster spot to bring in Walker or another player on a 10-day deal.
  • Playing out of position as a center rather than a forward is getting Zeke Nnaji minutes in the Nuggets‘ rotation, but the role may not play to his strengths, writes Mike Singer of The Denver Post (subscription required). After making 61-of-139 threes (43.9%) in his first two seasons, Nnaji is just 3-of-18 this season from beyond the arc. “With the five, it’s a lot less picking-and-popping,” he said. “They want me more rolling and putting pressure on that rim because if I’m popping every time, there’s not as much thrust on the rim, which collapses the defense. Right now I gotta roll more, even though I feel like I’m a capable shooter, I gotta do what’s best for the team.”
  • In an in-depth story for The Athletic, Jason Lloyd explores why Mike Brown was so intrigued by the Kings‘ head coaching opening this past spring and what he learned in his previous head coaching jobs that he brought with him to Sacramento.

Western Notes: Gordon, Nnaji, Brown, Wood

Aaron Gordon is having a career season for the Nuggets, and Mike Singer of The Denver Post (subscriber link) writes that the veteran forward has a compelling case to make his first All-Star appearance.

Gordon’s traditional stats — 17.5 PPG, 6.7 RPG, 2.1 APG, 0.9 SPG and 0.8 BPG through 29 games (30.0 MPG) — are all solid, if unspectacular. However, as Singer details, the 27-year-old’s efficiency (61.1 FG%, 68.0 2PT%, 39.0 3PT%, 66.9 true shooting percentage), defense, and synergy with center Nikola Jokic are what really stand out.

Singer also notes that Gordon is playing for one of the top teams in the league, which might matter to coaches (who select the All-Star reserves) — the Nuggets are currently 22-12, tied for the best record in the West.

Gordon (right shoulder strain) will return to the starting lineup on Friday against Miami following a two-game absence, tweets Singer.

Here’s more from the West:

  • With Nuggets forward Jeff Green sidelined for at least three more weeks due to a left hand fracture and left finger sprain, forward/center Zeke Nnaji has an opportunity to earn increased playing time. The former first-round pick plans to do the “dirty work” to help fill Green’s void, according to Singer (subscriber link). Head coach Michael Malone has a straightforward task for Nnaji. “I just want to feel Zeke’s energy out there,” Malone said.
  • The Kings announced that head coach Mike Brown has cleared the health and safety protocols and will resume his coaching duties on Friday against Utah, tweets James Ham of ESPN 1320 and TheKingsBeat.com. Brown entered the protocols on Tuesday, so his stint was brief. The Kings have been a pleasant surprise thus far, currently holding an 18-15 record, the No. 7 seed in the West.
  • Mavericks big man Christian Wood will be an unrestricted free agent in the offseason. How much will he make on his next contract? Keith Smith explores that topic in an article for Spotrac, ultimately concluding that Wood’s maximum extension number — about $77MM over four years — seems pretty fair. He’d be eligible for more than that if he reaches unrestricted free agency.

Nuggets Notes: Power Forwards, Gordon, Jokic, Braun

Nuggets head coach Michael Malone said on Sunday that the team will take a by-committee approach to replacing Jeff Green‘s minutes with the forward expected to miss at least a month or so due to a finger injury.

As Harrison Wind of DNVR Sports tweets, Malone mentioned Zeke Nnaji as a logical replacement from Green at power forward, but noted that Vlatko Cancar, Michael Porter Jr., and Bruce Brown could all see minutes at the four as well. Nnaji was ineffective vs. Phoenix on Sunday, picking up three fouls and no points or rebounds in nine minutes of action.

Here’s more on the Nuggets:

  • Aaron Gordon had 28 points, 13 rebounds, a highlight-reel dunk, and a key blocked shot in Sunday’s victory and has now been a plus-65 during Denver’s four-game winning streak (the Nuggets have been outscored by 31 points with Gordon off the court during the streak). As Mike Singer of The Denver Post writes, the forward’s ability to contribute all over the court has Malone talking about him as a potential All-Star and Nikola Jokic referring to him as the “soul of this team.”
  • Gordon is questionable to play on Tuesday in Sacramento due to a right shoulder strain, tweets Vinny Benedetto of The Denver Gazette.
  • Voter fatigue will likely work against Jokic as he makes a bid for a third consecutive MVP award, but the Nuggets’ star center is building a strong case for consideration, according to John Hollinger of The Athletic. The 27-year-old is nearly averaging a triple-double for the top team in the Western Conference and has scored more efficiently than ever, with a career-best .616 FG%. Additionally, the Nuggets have a plus-11.3 net rating with Jokic on the floor, compared to an abysmal minus-13.6 mark when he sits, per NBA.com.
  • Within the same Athletic story, Hollinger checks in on Nuggets rookie wing Christian Braun, who has been playing rotation minutes as of late. Hollinger is intrigued by the potential Braun has shown on defense, but acknowledges his role on offense is unlikely to expand beyond “guy who stands in the corner” anytime in the near future.

Nuggets Notes: Murray, Nnaji, Jokic, MPJ

Nuggets point guard Jamal Murray has been dealing with shooting issues, but is trying to find other ways to chip in, writes Mike Singer of The Denver Post. Singer notes that Murray’s left knee, which went under the knife in April 2021 after he tore his ACL, was sore during a 119-115 victory over the Hornets Sunday, but Murray did his best to play through the pain. He did not shoot well, but chipped in 11 dimes while only turning over the ball three times.

“I didn’t want to sit out,” Murray said. “I can not score and (still) have a decent game.”

As Singer observes, Murray made an impact through setting good screens, passing, being a threat from deep, and staying in touch with teammates on defense.

The 6’3″ guard is averaging 17.5 PPG on .437/.338/.765 shooting splits. Those shooting numbers mark a bit of a dip since Murray’s last healthy season in 2020/21. He is also chipping in 5.4 APG, 3.7 RPG and 0.8 SPG.

There’s more out of Denver:

  • Nuggets head coach Michael Malone believes third-year power forward Zeke Nnaji deserves more playing time, per Harrison Wind of DNVR Sports (Twitter link). “When he’s gotten a chance, he’s done a really good job for us,” Malone noted. “We have to find out if Zeke Nnaji can be a part of this team… Now it’s my job to get him out there and play him – not just one game and sit five. No one can do that. It’s almost like Zeke needs an extended chance to show what he can do to help this team. He deserves that opportunity.”
  • Two-time Nuggets MVP center Nikola Jokic is playing at an exceptionally high level for the third straight season, writes Sopan Deb of The New York Times. The big man has emerged as one of the best passers and scorers in the league, and Malone considers him to be a “generational talent.” The 6’11” All-Star is averaging 24.7 PPG, 11 RPG, 9.2 APG, and 1.5 SPG across 27 contests for the 19-11 Nuggets. He also boasts a shooting line of .617/.328/.798 this year.
  • The Nuggets are convinced small forward Michael Porter Jr. can help the team on the defensive end, writes Harrison Wind of DNR Sports. Wind writes that the team’s starting five of Porter, point guard Murray, shooting guard Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, power forward Aaron Gordon and Jokic is posting a defensive rating of 101.6 in 2022/23. Though smaller fill-in starting small forward Bruce Brown is nominally a superior defender, Wind postulates that the sheer size of Porter (6’10” with a 7-foot wingspan) helps positively impact that starting lineup defensively.

Nuggets Notes: Porter, Brown, Bench

Michael Porter Jr. wasn’t able to practice Sunday because of lingering pain from a left heel contusion and it sounds like he’ll miss Monday’s game against the Rockets, writes Mike Singer of The Denver Post. Porter hasn’t played since Nov. 22, but Nuggets coach Michael Malone said the injury occurred before then and called it “something that’s kind of been building.”

“Right now it’s just real painful for Michael, so he’ll come back and he’ll play when he feels like he’s able to go out there and do his job effectively,” Malone said.

Porter has managed to play in 16 of Denver’s first 19 games after being limited to nine games last season with a back injury. Bruce Brown has filled the opening in the starting lineup over the past week, which has boosted the team’s defense. Singer notes that Jeff Green would have been considered to replace Porter as a starter, but he’s been dealing with a knee contusion and won’t be available for tonight’s game either.

There’s more from Denver:

  • Brown may be playing too well for the Nuggets to be able to re-sign him after the season, Singer states in a mailbag column. If Brown turns down his $6.8MM player option for 2023/24, Denver would only have his Non-Bird rights and would be limited to offering him a 120% raise in the first year of a new contract, which would be about $7.75MM. Singer suggests that Brown might be able to double his current salary of $6.479MM in free agency.
  • The reserve unit has been an issue for the first quarter of the season as the Nuggets’ bench has the third worst plus-minus rating of any group in the league, Singer adds. Brown and Bones Hyland have regular roles and Singer believes Green’s spot is secure because of his veteran status, but Malone has been juggling the other players to try to find an effective combination. Neither Davon Reed or Christian Braun has seized the backup small forward role, and Malone has recently been using Zeke Nnaji and Vlatko Cancar ahead of DeAndre Jordan. Singer speculates that Nnaji or Cancar could eventually be dealt for another guard.
  • Draft-and-stash player Ismael Kamagate is interested in joining the Nuggets next season, as we relayed on Sunday. The 21-year-old center was traded twice after being selected with the 46th pick in this year’s draft, and he said Denver has been sending representatives to watch him play.