Zeke Nnaji

Nuggets Notes: Murray, Nnaji, Playoff Rotation, Spurs

Nuggets guard Jamal Murray missed his seventh consecutive game in Thursday’s two-point loss to the Clippers, but head coach Michael Malone said his team’s second-best player is “getting closer and closer,” to a return, according to Ohm Youngmisuk of ESPN (Twitter link).

Murray is officially questionable for Saturday’s contest vs. Atlanta due to right knee inflammation, tweets Vinny Benedetto of The Denver Gazette.

Here are a few more notes on the defending champs:

  • While he didn’t get any playing time, big man Zeke Nnaji was active on Thursday for the first time since March 17. He has been dealing with a right adductor injury the past few weeks. The 23-year-old isn’t on the injury report ahead of Saturday’s game.
  • In addition to Christian Braun and Reggie Jackson, Malone mentioned Peyton Watson and Nnaji as players who might crack the playoff rotation, though he suggested others could get a look depending on the matchup, writes Bennett Durando of The Denver Post. “A lot of it’s gonna come down to who we’re playing, to be honest,” Malone said. “If we’re playing a team that’s really big, I’ll probably have to play a bigger lineup and some other guys. Obviously, trying to get Zeke Nnaji back healthy. He’s been out for a little while now. We know that we can go with Aaron (Gordon) as our backup five. … But there’s a lot of guys that we can throw into games. And obviously, Christian, Reggie, Peyton, Zeke, D.J. (DeAndre Jordan) — whoever the game calls upon, those guys will all be ready. I have no doubt about that.”
  • It’s a tall order, to be sure, but general manager Calvin Booth says the Nuggets hope to emulate the Spurs‘ dynasty in the years to come, per Troy Renck of The Denver Post. Led by Tim Duncan, San Antonio won four championships from 1999-2007, and a fifth title in 2014. “It is of utmost importance and something I believe in a lot. As a front office, we understand the importance of studying historical patterns and what things have worked,” Booth explained. “The Spurs are the standard.”

Nuggets Notes: Nnaji, Murray, Gordon, Jokic

After signing a four-year, $32MM rookie scale extension in the offseason, Nuggets forward/center Zeke Nnaji surely hoped to take a step forward in 2023/24. Instead, he’s been out of the team’s rotation for much of the season, averaging fewer minutes per game (9.9) than he did over the previous two campaigns (17.0 and 13.7, respectively).

However, head coach Michael Malone reinserted the 23-year-old into the rotation a few games before the All-Star break and Nnaji is trying to take advantage of the opportunity, according to Vinny Benedetto of The Denver Gazette.

I feel like I’m playing well,” Nnaji said after Sunday’s win vs. Golden State. “Maybe (it’s) the work that I’m putting in, but I found a little rhythm.”

Nnaji, who views himself as a natural power forward instead of a center, which he’s played far more of this season, says he’s remained even-keeled amid his inconsistent playing time, Benedetto writes.

Never get too high, never get too low,” Nnaji said of his approach while playing time has waxed and waned. “I have confidence in the practice and the work that I put in every day, whether it’s a game day or an off day. Whenever I get my opportunity, I just go out there and try to make the most (of it) and help the team win however I can.”

Here’s more on the defending champions:

  • Point guard Jamal Murray missed the second game of a back-to-back last week in Portland. John Hollinger of The Athletic asked Malone about the injury, with the coach saying it’s something Murray and the team will have to manage for the rest of the season. “It’s shin splints,” said Malone, “and everything he’s dealing with right now, every time he plays it’s gonna be an issue. This is not second night of a back-to-back ‘resting.’ He is managing an injury. It’s just something we’re just going to have to find a way to figure out.” Malone added that in order for Murray’s shin splints to fully heal, he’ll need an extended period of rest, almost certainly in the offseason. “I’m sure it’s very painful,” Malone continued, “and the more he plays — and Jamal is gonna be a guy who is going to play upwards 35, 36 minutes a night. We just have to try to limit his load as much as possible — shootarounds, practices, whatever we’re doing — to make sure that game days are holy and he can be available for as many of them as possible.” For what it’s worth, Murray isn’t on the injury report tonight vs. Miami, which is also the second game of a back-to-back, as Benedetto tweets.
  • The Nuggets entered the All-Star break on a three-game losing streak, but they were unconcerned about their form entering the home stretch of the season, writes Bennett Durando of The Denver Post. The team has reeled off four straight victories post-break, and forward Aaron Gordon says the team didn’t want to peak too early. “We know what time it is now,” Gordon said after Wednesday’s win. “It’s time to start ramping up. I know we didn’t want to be playing our best basketball early in the season.”
  • Mo Dakhil of The Athletic breaks down some of the “genius” of two-time MVP Nikola Jokic, who is the frontrunner for the award again in ’23/24. Jokic has recorded a triple-double in just three quarters in each of the past four games, and his teammates have great timing on cuts to the basket when the Serbian center is double-teamed, Dakhil writes.

Pistons Notes: Muscala, Thompson, Ivey, Cap Room

The Pistons got a strong performance from their new-look bench in Saturday’s loss to Milwaukee, writes Omari Sankofa II of The Detroit Free Press. Alec Burks scored 33 points and teamed with newly acquired Mike Muscala to hit 11-of-18 shots from beyond the arc as Detroit’s reserves put up 85 points, the most of any team this season. Muscala has noticed a commitment to effort from his new teammates since being acquired in a trade last week.

“Guys play really hard here, and it’s an honor to be a part of that,” he said. “It was a good game today, we just couldn’t get it done, especially on defense. We get a chance to play them again on Monday, and obviously they’re a great team. They have a lot of weapons on offense, but I thought we battled hard today.”

Rookie forward Ausar Thompson, who started for much of the first half of the season, has also become an important part of the bench unit, and Sankofa notes that his rebounding and ability to attack the basket make him an effective complement to Muscala. Coach Monty Williams seems confident in his current bench group.

“Ausar coming off the bench and knocking down shots was huge for his confidence and huge for the development of our young group,” Williams said. “Having (Danilo) Gallinari and Mike out there, they’re seamlessly fitting in and figuring out how we play. Burks has been phenomenal. His ability to score the ball, his ability to communicate and help the young guys on the floor have helped us a ton. You don’t typically get that kind of bench production, but with the vets we have coming off the bench, it certainly helps us.”

There’s more from Detroit:

  • Jaden Ivey has excelled over the past two weeks with Cade Cunningham sidelined by a left knee strain, and he’ll continue to have a role in running the offense once Cunningham returns, Sankofa adds. “It’s good to see him not just score the ball. Like I said he’s defending, attacking the basket, knocking down open shots,” Williams said. “I think it’s going to be a good complement with those two playing together within the system.”
  • The Pistons could have $60MM in cap room this summer, and James L. Edwards III and John Hollinger of The Athletic look at how they might spend it, agreeing that it’s likely to be more useful in trading for big salaries rather than signing free agents. Hollinger speculates that the Pistons might have interest in Andrew Wiggins if the Warriors can’t move him before the trade deadline, although he’s a gamble with three years and $85MM left on his contract. Hollinger mentions a few other potential targets with long-term deals, including the NuggetsZeke Nnaji, the SunsNassir Little and the KingsDavion Mitchell.
  • The NBA has moved the starting time of the Pistons’ January 28 contest against the Thunder so it doesn’t conflict with the Detroit Lions’ playoff game on that Sunday, tweets Tim Reynolds of The Associated Press.

Northwest Notes: Thunder, Holmgren, Nnaji, Scoot, Grant

The significance of the Thunder‘s victory in Denver on Saturday night can’t be ignored, according to Tony Jones of The Athletic, who points out that it’s extremely rare for any team to steal a win at Ball Arena. The Nuggets lost just seven times in Denver during the 2022/23 regular season and had won 10 of 11 home games so far this season before Saturday’s defeat.

“It showed that we can play with anybody when we are playing well,” Thunder forward Jalen Williams said of the thrilling 118-117 win. “Obviously, we have a ton of respect for Denver. In regards to that, they did a lot to win this game as well. But we feel that we can compete with anybody, and I think this solidifies those thoughts that we have.

“Honestly, I don’t think that we’ve ever not thought that way. But this just gives us more and more confidence as we head into the rest of the season. We know that we have a lot of work ahead of us and a long way to go. But we know that we can play with anyone when we are on our game.”

With the victory, the Thunder moved ahead of the Nuggets in the standings and once again hold the No. 2 seed in the Western Conference. As Jones writes, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander also continued to strengthen his Most Valuable Player case on Saturday, outplaying two-time MVP Nikola Jokic and hitting the game-winning shot in the final second of the fourth quarter.

Here’s more from around the Northwest:

  • Jokic had high praise for Thunder big man Chet Holmgren, who had an incredible nine blocked shots on Saturday. As Bennett Durando of The Denver Post relays, the Nuggets’ star center thinks Holmgren is capable of being much more than just a Rookie of the Year winner. “I think that’s not supposed to be his goal,” Jokic said. “I think he can be much better than that.”
  • Zeke Nnaji has been a DNP-CD in six of the Nuggets‘ past eight games, as head coach Michael Malone has leaned on DeAndre Jordan as the team’s primary backup center. However, Malone is unwilling to classify Nnaji as “out of the rotation,” referring to him as “an effective player for us,” tweets Harrison Wind of DNVR Sports. Nnaji signed a four-year, $32MM rookie scale extension prior to the season; it will begin in ’24/25.
  • Trail Blazers rookie Scoot Henderson has been showing his explosiveness more often as of late, which the team views as another sign that he’s getting more comfortable after a slow start to his NBA career, writes Jason Quick of The Athletic. “I think Scoot is getting better every day, to be honest with you,” Billups said of the No. 3 overall pick, who has averaged 18.3 points on .468/.500/1.000 shooting in his past three games. “You can actually see the progress in the games. In the early part of the season he really struggled, and I thought most of his struggles came from him just wanting so badly to play well. So, he could never slow down.”
  • Trail Blazers forward Jerami Grant returned to action on Saturday after spending four games in the concussion protocol and didn’t miss a beat, scoring 27 points on 12-of-20 shooting in 38 minutes of action. Grant is one of several players around the NBA who won’t become trade-eligible until January 15.

Nuggets’ Michael Malone To Make Changes To Bench Rotation

The Nuggets concluded a 1-4 road trip by losing to the Rockets by 19 points on Friday, prompting coach Michael Malone to promise that changes to the rotation were on the way, as relayed by The Denver Post’s Bennett Durando.

I just told them,” Malone said. “Minutes, I’m gonna start playing different people. You just can’t go out there because you think you’re gonna play, and go out there and do nothing. You’ve gotta bring something to the party.

Denver’s bench was outscored 16-0 in the first half on Friday with Christian Braun, Peyton Watson, Zeke Nnaji and Julian Strawther the headliners of the second unit. Braun had a good road trip, according to Durando, but Watson was a minus-24 and Strawther was a minus-36 during that stretch, while Nnaji was a minus-10 before Friday, a game in which he got pulled after one minute.

The Nuggets have put an emphasis on a two-timeline plan this offseason, as evidenced by using three draft picks this year and entrusting young players like Braun, Nnaji and Watson with heavy minutes. That plan is being put to the test with star guard Jamal Murray having been out since Nov. 4. Malone said he hopes Murray comes back “really, really soon,” according to Vinny Benedetto of The Denver Gazette (Twitter link).

One such change is seemingly going to be a minutes increase for Justin Holiday, according to Durando. Holiday only averages 8.2 minutes and has seen time in just six games, but he drew praise from Malone after Friday’s contest.

I thought Justin played pretty well,” Malone said. “So we’ll see. We’re going home. Very disappointing road trip. … That’s the challenge when you have so many young, unproven players off the bench. But we also have games to win, and that delicate balance is a tightrope. But we need to win, and I’m gonna play the guys that are gonna help us get a win.”

Even though Reggie Jackson hasn’t been able to replicate what Murray brought to the starting lineup, Malone continues to praise the guard, whose production helped offset the bench’s issues when Murray was healthy.

We’re playing lineups out there with no point guard,” Malone said. “We probably had quite a few minutes of that tonight. … Reggie, I think, has done a really good job in place of Jamal. But just like if Nikola goes down, we don’t have another Nikola Jokic. We don’t have another Jamal Murray.

Outside of turning to Holiday, Denver’s options off the bench are limited. Vlatko Cancar was expected to play a bigger role this year but is missing the season with an ACL injury he suffered in August. Denver also has rookies Jalen Pickett and Hunter Tyson under standard contracts but that might not solve the issue of giving too much responsibility to younger players.

Outside of that, the only other veteran who isn’t currently a part of the rotation is 35-year-old DeAndre Jordan. Two-way players Collin Gillespie, Jay Huff and Braxton Key could also be in line for minutes.

14 Players Affected By Poison Pill Provision In 2023/24

The term “poison pill” doesn’t actually show up in the NBA’s Collective Bargaining Agreement, but it’s used colloquially to refer to a provision in the CBA that affects players who recently signed rookie scale contract extensions.

As we explain in our glossary entry, the so-called poison pill provision applies when a player who signed a rookie scale extension is traded before the extension takes effect.

In that scenario, the player’s incoming value for the receiving team for matching purposes is determined by averaging his current-year salary and the salaries in each year of his new extension. His current team, on the other hand, simply treats his current-year salary as the outgoing figure for matching purposes.

For instance, Spurs wing Devin Vassell is earning a $5,887,899 salary in 2023/24, but signed a five-year, $135MM extension that will begin in ’24/25.

Therefore, if San Antonio wanted to trade Vassell this season, his outgoing value for salary-matching purposes would be $5,887,899 (this year’s salary), while his incoming value for the team acquiring him would be $23,481,317 (this year’s salary, plus the $135MM extension, divided by six years).

[RELATED: 2023 NBA Rookie Scale Extension Recap]

Most of the players who signed rookie scale extensions aren’t realistic candidates to be traded anytime soon. But even in the event that a team does want to look into trading one of these recently extended players, the gap between the player’s incoming trade value and outgoing trade value could make it a real challenge to find a deal that works for both sides.

The “poison pill” provision applies to 14 players who signed rookie scale extensions in 2023. Here are those players, along with their outgoing salaries and incoming salaries for trade purposes:

Player Team Outgoing trade value Incoming trade value
Anthony Edwards MIN $13,534,817 $36,573,920
LaMelo Ball CHA $10,900,635 $36,134,889
Tyrese Haliburton IND $5,808,435 $35,286,189
Desmond Bane MEM $3,845,083 $33,512,589
Devin Vassell SAS $5,887,899 $23,481,317
Jaden McDaniels MIN $3,901,399 $22,483,567
Onyeka Okongwu ATL $8,109,063 $14,021,813
Isaiah Stewart DET $5,266,713 $13,053,343
Deni Avdija WSH $6,263,188 $12,252,638
Josh Green DAL $4,765,339 $11,441,335
Cole Anthony ORL $5,539,771 $11,159,943
Aaron Nesmith IND $5,634,257 $9,658,564
Zeke Nnaji DEN $4,306,281 $7,261,256
Payton Pritchard BOS $4,037,278 $6,807,456

Once the 2024/25 league year begins next July, the poison pill provision will no longer apply to these players. At that time, the player’s ’24/25 salary would represent both his outgoing and incoming value.

Until then though, the gap between those outgoing and incoming figures will make it tricky for several of these players to be moved, though it affects some more significantly than others.

The small difference between Pritchard’s incoming and outgoing trade figures, for instance, likely wouldn’t be very problematic if the Celtics decide to trade him. But the much larger divide between Bane’s incoming and outgoing numbers means there’s virtually no chance he could be dealt to an over-the-cap team in 2023/24 — given that the Grizzlies have no desire to move Bane, that’ll be a moot point, but it’s still worth noting.

Extension Details: Avdija, Nnaji, Nesmith

Deni Avdija‘s new four-year, $55MM extension with the Wizards features a declining structure, according to ESPN’s Bobby Marks, who passes along details on a couple other recently-signed rookie scale extensions as well (All Twitter links).

Avdija will make $15,625,000 (11% of the projected salary cap) in 2024/25, which is when the deal kicks in, but that figure declines to $11,875,000 (7.2% of the projected cap) by ’27/28. As previously reported, the contract is fully guaranteed, with no team or player options.

Nuggets big man Zeke Nnaji‘s four-year, $32MM extension also descends over time, according to Marks. The deal starts at $8,888,889 in ’24/25 and Nnaji will carry identical $7,466,667 cap hits in the third and fourth years of the deal, with the fourth being a player option.

Pacers forward Aaron Nesmith, on the other hand, will receive a flat $11MM each season from 2024-26, for a total of $33MM over three years, Marks adds.

Speaking to the media on Monday, Nesmith said he was “very happy” with the agreement (Twitter video link via Dustin Dopirak of The Indianapolis Star).

It’s a great feeling,” he said. “I’m happy to be here, I wanted to be here. I’m very happy for the opportunity to be here for the next four years. It’s awesome. I’m excited.

Zeke Nnaji Gets Four-Year, $32MM Extension From Nuggets

OCTOBER 22: The signing is now official, per a Denver press release.

OCTOBER 21: Zeke Nnaji has agreed to a four-year, $32MM extension with the Nuggets, agent Adam Pensack tells ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski (Twitter link).

The new contract includes a player option for the final season, Wojnarowski adds. Nnaji will earn $4,306,281 this year before the extension begins in 2024/25.

A 22-year-old power forward, Nnaji was selected with the 22nd pick in the 2020 draft. He has become a valuable reserve for the defending champions, averaging 5.2 points and 2.6 rebounds in 53 games last season while shooting 56.1% from the field.

Nnaji was on the court for 13.7 minutes per game in 2022/23, and he’s expected to see more playing time during the upcoming season after the loss of Jeff Green and Thomas Bryant in free agency.

Monday is the last day that teams can sign eligible players to rookie scale extensions. Those who don’t reach new agreements will become restricted free agents next summer.

[RELATED: Players Eligible For Rookie Scale Extensions In 2023]

Nnaji is the eighth player to agree to a rookie scale extension this year, joining LaMelo Ball, Anthony Edwards, Tyrese Haliburton, Desmond Bane, Devin Vassell, Isaiah Stewart, and Payton Pritchard.

Nuggets Notes: Watson, Porter Jr., Murray, Braun, Jordan, Nnaji

Nuggets forward Peyton Watson isn’t lacking for confidence. He feels he’ll have a breakout season, he told Harrison Wind of TheDnvr.com. Watson is looking to be a rotation player and earn an invite to the Rising Stars game on All-Star weekend.

“I feel like I’m one of the best second-year guys in the league,” he said.

Watson keeps close tabs on Nikola Jokic and wants to emulate the superstar center’s approach.

“I literally watch everything he does,” Watson said. “He never takes any shortcuts. He does everything the right way every day. He doesn’t cut any corners. I really watch all those things because I want to be on that level one day. I feel like I can be an All-NBA player one day. And I take it very seriously. So I watch everything he does. I admire his game and I admire what he does to have his game on that level.”

We have more on the Nuggets:

  • Michael Porter Jr. is unlikely to play in Denver’s preseason opener on Tuesday due to an ankle injury. Jamal Murray and Christian Braun were both limited at practice on Monday, coach Michael Malone told Wind and other media members (Twitter links). Murray has a mild hamstring issue while Braun has a calf injury.
  • Jokic’s backup could vary depending upon the opponent and situation, according to Bennett Durando of the Denver Post. DeAndre Jordan and Zeke Nnaji are the two candidates. “I think sometimes it will be dependent on who we’re playing,” Malone said. “There are a few teams in the Western Conference that play really big, and those could be great games for D.J. We love the defensive versatility that Zeke brings in terms of being able to switch one through five. So having the balance of using either one of those guys depending on who you’re playing I think is helpful for us.”
  • Jordan, who re-signed with the Nuggets on a one-year, veteran’s minimum deal, is unconcerned about his playing time, Durando adds. “I want to win basketball games. I want to win another championship,” he said. “I want to win with this group of guys. And we all have different pieces that make this machine work. Whoever’s out there, they give us the best chance to win. … I think this group last year was big on being selfless. And if it’s Zeke’s night, I’m going to be the first one that’s cheering for him because I want him to be successful.”

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).