With the 2020 NBA Draft approaching a month from now, former Arizona freshman big man Zeke Nnaji sat down with BasketballNews.com to discuss a number of topics, ranging from his personal interests to his game to why he'll make a solid pro.
Your family has a lot of athletes, but also musicians -- and you’re an experienced musician yourself. Can you tell me a little bit about your background with music?
Zeke Nnaji: "Growing up, I was always super into music. I listen to tons of different genres of music. I've also played different instruments since I was the age of like four or five. I had a little toy piano with maybe 20 keys on it — I loved playing on that. When I got to the first grade, my parents enrolled me in some piano lessons and I did that until I was in the eighth grade. I loved it and it was super fun for me, but by the time I had gotten to eighth grade, I had outgrown the teacher. At that point, I had to learn new songs on my own. I also started composing songs and making music too. I like making and listening to music. I really just love music — a ton of different genres too. I'm all about music."
Has there been anything from your musical background that has assisted in your development as a basketball player?
Nnaji: "Yeah, I've taken the discipline and dedication I used to learn new pieces of music and applied them to how I train for basketball. The piano taught me how to work hard at a young age of like seven or eight years old. I tried to learn difficult pieces, and I struggled with them. I had to learn to grind. I'd put in three hours a day of work and I persevered through those difficult times. When I was able to get a challenging piano piece down, I was very satisfied. It was a great feeling to know that my hard work had paid off. Learning how to sit down and work through something difficult has helped me in basketball. I use the same kind of philosophy when I approach training for basketball. Sometimes things are going to be hard when you're lifting or when you're getting up shots. It's hard work, and sometimes things are more difficult than usual, but if you sit down and focus on those certain areas and apply discipline and dedication, you will see improvements.
If you had the opportunity to play in the NBA Finals or center stage at Carnegie Hall, which would you choose and why?
Nnaji: "I would have to choose the NBA Finals, without a doubt in my mind. I remember growing up and being out in my driveway imagining hitting a game-winning shot in the NBA Finals. That's always been my dream. I see music more as a hobby. I never played video games or anything like that, so I see music the way I think many people see video games. I don't see myself ever going the professional route with music. The piano is more of a meditative escape for me."
Can you walk me through your recruitment process and how you ended up deciding to go to the University of Arizona?
Nnaji: "I think my family and I went about the process a little differently than most people. We made a giant checklist of things that we were looking for in a school -- from style of play, the conference, the coaching staff, the community, the strength coach and the business school. So we had this giant checklist and, at the end of the day, Arizona just happened to be the school that checked off the most boxes. It was clear that it was the best fit for me."
Your sister Maya is a five-star high school basketball recruit. What type of advice have you given her in regards to selecting a school?
Nnaji: "She's going through the same thing that I went through. My family also helped her make a checklist of things that suit her best and that would best fit her needs of what she wants to do, both on and off the court. Other than that, the advice that I've given her has been that she should go to a place where she feels comfortable, and not go somewhere just because of the name or because they're ranked high. Instead, go to a place that's going to be good fit for you, and that's going to help you to develop into being the kind of person that you want to be -- both on and off the court."
According to ESPN, you were the 49th-ranked player in your high school class, not as high of a ranking for the typical one-and-done prospect. In your opinion, was it more of a situation where you were overlooked or that you were a late bloomer?
Nnaji: "I was definitely overlooked. I think that I've been overlooked a lot throughout my life. I looked at some of the people that were ranked above me and I knew that I was better than them, but I didn't let it bother me. It motivated me and put a chip on my shoulder. Going into college, it really pushed me to be the best. I wasn't going to let my ranking stop me from doing well in college because I knew every time that you move up to the next level, the rankings reset and it doesn't matter where you were ranked beforehand. What matters is how hard you work and how badly you want it — and I want it as badly as anyone.
"One thing that I wanted to do was win Pac-12 Freshman of the Year — that was a goal of mine. I know a lot of people didn't think that would be possible because I was ranked 49th in high school rankings. There were a handful of McDonald's All-Americans that were freshmen in my conference, but I didn't feel that could stop me. When you get to college, the rankings are reset. The coaches in the conference picked me for that award. I also won some other awards this year, too. I think it shows that hard work and dedication can help you. It also shows that it doesn't matter where you were in high school when you get to college, and the same thing can be said for when you go to the NBA. It doesn't matter where you get drafted. There have been plenty of All-Stars that have been taken in the second round. It matters how hard you work and how badly you want it. Out of everyone in this draft class, I feel that I am the player that is most likely to hit my ceiling because of my dedication and the structure that I put in, both on and off the court. I believe that the sky's the limit for me."
Despite being known as a big guy that could shoot the ball well coming out of high school, it did not seem as if Coach Sean Miller wanted that to be a big part of your role this past season. Walk me through your role for that Arizona team and how your role in the NBA could differ -- and do you expect outside shooting to be a big part of your game moving forward?
Nnaji: "In high school, I played power forward; actually, I’ve played power forward my whole life. I never really played the center position. I got a lot stronger before going to college, and our team was lacking some inside presence. We were one of the worst teams in the Pac-12 at the beginning of the season in defensive rebounding, and we were a middle-of-the-pack team in offensive rebounding. At some point in the season, my coach sat me down and talked to me. He said that he needed me to step up at the five. I hadn't done it before and I wasn’t used to it, and I struggled at first; I watched a lot of film and I simulated different things in practice. By the end of the year, we were the number-one defensive rebounding team in the Pac-12 and the number-two offensive rebounding team. We did well when I was at the five position.
"My role on that team was being a rebounder and a back-to-the-basket scorer. I was depended on to bring energy and lock up the other teams’ bigs. In the NBA, I think my role will be a little different, but not a whole lot. I’ll bring high energy. I’ll be a relentless rebounder, versatile defender that can guard bigs but also switch on to guards, and I’m going to stretch the floor on the offensive end. I feel really confident in my three-point shooting ability from the NBA line; I'm shooting the ball really well from that range. If you look at some of the videos that we’ve posted online from my workouts at Impact Basketball, you’ll see that I'm shooting really well. I have incredible confidence in my shot right now, and I feel that it’s going to get even better. I also think I’m capable of taking advantage of mismatches in the NBA. If a bigger and slower guy is on me, I can use my quickness. If a smaller guy is on me, I’ll post them up and use my size."
If you had to choose one player that you model your game after, who would that be?
Nnaji: "I wouldn't say that there is one specific person. I try to look at the good things from different NBA players and I try to take those good aspects of their game and implement them into mine. For examples, LeBron James’ ability to see the floor and his vision, Giannis Antetokounmpo’s explosiveness and Klay Thompson’s shooting ability."
You gained quite a bit of muscle before you even stepped foot on Arizona's campus. What did you do to get stronger?
Nnaji: "As soon as I committed to Arizona, my father and strength coach from Minnesota went down to Tucson and met with the strength coach there. They set up a regimented program so that I could do their workout while being in Minnesota. I committed to Arizona before my senior year in high school had even started. I was on that program the entire year; I worked out six days a week in the weight room. I knew that I wanted to be strong. I wanted to be stronger than the people I’d go up against, and so I needed to start early. I’m glad I did because it gave me a head start going into college — it was huge for me. It gave me a boost and helped me have a great freshman season."
As we discussed when I was in Las Vegas recently, you have continued to add strength and weight. How much do you currently weigh? And as far as your physical development, would you like to add more muscle and weight, or have you gotten to a point where you’d just like to maintain?
Nnaji: "At the end of the season, I was about 230 pounds and I currently weigh 249 pounds. I really like where I'm at right now. I think that it's a great weight for me. I don't want to gain anymore, rather just continue to get stronger but maintain this weight. Part of the reason that I don’t want to gain any more weight is that I want to keep my quickness — it’s a big part of my game. My quickness allows me to be more versatile."
I've learned that you are a vegan. Take me through how you got started with that diet, and how is it beneficial to you as a professional athlete?
Nnaji: "In college, I wasn't vegan. I had heard and thought about it, but didn’t make the switch until after our season ended. Making that transition from eating regular foods to being vegan has been huge for me. I have more energy, I'm sleeping better and I am getting stronger. Since becoming vegan, I just feel better in all aspects of my life. I watched a documentary called 'The Game Changers,' which is about different high-level athletes who are vegan, and it outlines how the diet has helped them. Also, Andre Iguodala came to talk to our team; he talked to us about a bunch of different things. One of the things he talked about was being vegan and how it helped him. Those were two things that left an impression on me and big reasons why I chose to become vegan. It's working for me so I'm going to stick with it."
You seem to be a very disciplined and regimented person, maybe even a perfectionist. It appears that your approach is working well, as you keep improving at a rapid rate. However, I’m curious -- do you ever feel like there are drawbacks to your disciplined approach? Do you ever feel like you put too much pressure on yourself?
Nnaji: "No, I don't feel like there are any drawbacks to my lifestyle. I’ve lived a disciplined and regimented life forever and it’s all I really know. I didn’t have a phone until I was a junior in high school, and I never played video games. This way of living is all I have ever really known and it's worked for me. My parents taught me that if you want to accomplish a goal, the best way to do that is to eliminate distractions and things that could derail you from achieving that goal. I don't feel like I put too much pressure on myself. It’s all normal to me. I look at a lot of successful people in the world, and a lot of them live a structured and disciplined life. I try to emulate them."
The pre-draft process this year has felt never-ending. From your perspective, what have been the positives and negatives of such a long process?
Nnaji: "The whole situation has been horrible. I feel bad for all of the people that have been affected by this virus. I mean, it's really sad. However, I'm trying to look at the positives in regards to this pre-draft process. One thing is that I’ve gotten more time to improve. The normal pre-draft process is only a couple months. This year, (it's) been six or seven months. I've been trying to take full advantage of this time off and I think that I have been capitalizing on it. I take things day-by-day; I think that's the best approach. I don't look too far ahead. I try to get better every day and improve on my weaknesses, even if it's just a little bit. If you do that every day, you’ll improve, and I am improving — I’m shooting the ball really well. I wanted to improve my shooting so that I can come into the NBA comfortable shooting from three-point range. I feel very confident in my ability to shoot the ball now. I'm just going to continue to work during this time."
The Minnesota Timberwolves have the No. 17 pick — which is right in your draft range, in my opinion. What would it mean to you to be drafted by your hometown team?
Nnaji: "Oh, yeah, that would be awesome! I grew up watching the Timberwolves and always rooted for them. I went to so many of their games as a little kid. My dad would buy us tickets and we would go pretty often. I remember my first game that I ever went to watch was to see the Miami Heat when LeBron had just moved there — it was super fun! The Timberwolves were one of my favorite teams growing up and if I had the opportunity to play in front of all the people in Minnesota that have supported me that would just be really cool!"
Let’s pretend I’m an NBA general manager that’s considering selecting you. We have both entered an elevator. What’s your elevator pitch to me as to why you’re my guy?
Nnaji: "First of all, I'm very coachable. I’m not going to create any problems, as I’m a laid-back person. However, when I get on the court, I'm relentless and tenacious on both ends of the floor. I'm a beast with a non-stop motor. My hard work and discipline are going to take me far. I'm the most-likely prospect to hit my ceiling because of the kind of lifestyle that I live, both on and off the court. My discipline and my regimented life are going to push me towards that ceiling. I’m a no-nonsense type of guy off the court. I don't smoke or drink, and I don't go to clubs or any of that type of stuff. I like to chill at home, talk to my family, make music, simple things like that. If you're looking for someone to help your team be successful, I'm definitely that person."