Around The World: James Nnaji
International big man James Nnaji has the potential to be a Diamond in the Rough for the 2023 NBA Draft. Which NBA team will invest in his scary upside?
Potential: having or showing the capacity to become or develop into something in the future.
Potential is a scary word.
It’s an idea. Something that we often chase with the hope of finding improvement. When it comes to the game of basketball, potential is a word that can present both excitement and caution. The beautiful world of scouting results in us encountering this idea on a regular basis. Some prospects are desired commodities due to their upside and potential to develop into a special talent down the road.
But more often than not, we find out that living up to potential isn’t always a guarantee. NBA teams are fascinated with upside: the idea of finding a talent that is just waiting to be unlocked to reach their full potential. It’s a dangerous path to chase, as it can result in organizations taking steps back if the gamble is high enough.
If one player in the 2023 NBA Draft class can scream potential, it’s international big man James Nnaji. There have been a number of prospects generating buzz overseas throughout the year. Yes, Victor Wembanyama continues to do his thing, but prospects such as Rayan Rupert and Bilal Coulibaly have generated plenty of noise as well. Despite a lack of production, James Nnaji continues to be a popular name in NBA Draft circles. Is it teams chasing upside? Or is there ability that is waiting to be unlocked with the talented big man?
I’m here to tell you to ignore the stats. I know; it sounds completely chaotic, doesn’t it?
But allow me to explain why. James Nnaji is a 6’10”, 225-pound rim-running Hulk on the basketball court. He’s currently 18 years old (his physique would suggest we need to run a background check on that) and won’t turn 19 until August. Nnaji has been playing with EuroLeague powerhouse Barcelona. In 34 games this year, Nnaji has only managed to average 9.3 minutes of playing time. Given the roster FC Barcelona has…you’ll understand why Nnaji getting ANY minutes is impressive.
Notable Players on FC Barcelona Roster
23rd Overall Pick in 2011
Played in NBA from 2014-2019
EuroLeague MVP 2022
32nd Overall Pick in 2012
Played in NBA from 2016-2022
Former 6th overall pick in 2011
2019 EuroLeague MVP
Godfather is Michael Jordan (he’s good)
Tied for 1st in All-time scoring at Colorado
2x EuroLeague Champion (2016, 2019), Spanish Cup MVP (2021)
32nd Overall Pick in 2013
Spent 2016-2019 with OKC Thunder
34th Overall pick in 2021 NBA Draft
Averaging 14.2 MIN, 5.0 PPG
11.0 PTS | 2.3 REB | 4.6 AST | 42.3 3P%
EuroLeague 50-40-90 club (2022)
Spanish League MVP (2019)
Is everybody good? Are we all caught up to speed? Now, Barcelona has plenty of other horses in the stables when it comes to their impressive roster. Oftentimes, we find ourselves applauding young talent that is able to get playing time at the EuroLeague level. That might go double for Nnaji this year.
On the year, Nnaji has played in a total of 34 games, averaging just 3.8 points and 2.1 rebounds per game. He’s shooting 68.4% from the field and 52.4% from the free throw line on 1.2 attempts.
While the stats won’t get you excited about the 18-year-old big man, I can promise you one thing.
The film will.
We’re going to change things up a bit with this one. In recent Around the World segments, I’ve usually started off showcasing the offensive side of the ball. With Nnaji, I want to spotlight the area of his game that has the attention of NBA scouts.
Offensively, Nnaji is a raw ball of clay that needs to spend hours in a shop being sculptured. He’s a powerful force around the basket who will have you holding onto your seat each time he’s rolling toward the basket for an alley-oop attempt.
But the defensive ability possesses some serious stuff that is mature beyond his age.
If you were to look at Nnaji’s production, you wouldn’t come away with the idea that he has the tools to be a serious rim-protecting asset. Nnaji is averaging just 0.5 blocks per game during the 2022-23 season. But a friendly reminder that the 18-year-old is averaging just 9.3 minutes per game. Per 36 minutes, Nnaji is posting 14.9 points, 8.0 rebounds, and 1.8 blocks per game, if you’re into that sort of projection madness.
While Nnaji’s overall rawness can stand out offensively, it’s the defensive side of the ball that is oozing with confidence. Nnaji is active, alert, and mobile. He has freakish strength for a prospect of his age that combines dangerously with the ability to react in a hurry and explode with his quickness.
In the first sequence, we get an example of that quickness and ability to react. Nnaji defends a post-up opportunity before the ball handler explodes for a baseline drive. After trying to sell Nnaji for a reverse layup, the ball handler returns to attempt to finish on the other side of the basket. Nnaji quickly reacts and meets the shot at the rim for a beautiful rejection.
The next sequence is just as impressive. Nnaji finds himself in a position of help before sliding down to cut off a potential driving opportunity. Notice how quickly James reacts and understands where to meet the shot attempt at the basket.
The first clip here might be one of my favorites of the entire draft cycle. Just notice the activity of #46 throughout this entire play. Despite being listed at 6’10” and 225 pounds, James glides around the court with impressive quickness and fluidity.
Nnaji is going to switch onto a smaller defender before he comes across the lane and communicates with his teammate to switch. After the initial drive occurs, Nnaji digs to offer support before recovering to his man. When the following pass occurs, Nnaji shows us just how quickly he can get moving with his mobility before an emphatic rejection at the rim on a layup attempt.
The second sequence demonstrates another look at Nnaji defending in space. James does a great job of keeping his feet active and staying right on the ball handler before timing the rejection perfectly.
DEFENSIVE AWARENESS PART I
Here’s a pair of sequences showcasing the ability Nnaji has when it comes to dissecting a play and staying aware defensively. A lot of times with raw, powerful big men, you’ll see that their feet can get “stuck in cement.” Nnaji showcases that he can keep his feet active, allowing him to quickly react and get places in a hurry.
Love the awareness and patience on defense in the first clip; Nnaji stays alert and doesn’t get himself out of position after the eventual drive attempt. He waits for the ball handler to commit to this field goal attempt before meeting him up top for the rejection. If he’s too anxious there, it could leave to a window for a dump off. Instead, Nnaji shows patience and impressive timing.
The second clip showcases Nnaji defending the pick-and-roll. After the initial drive is prevented, Nnaji recovers to his man and reads this fadeaway attempt perfectly. Despite a limited sample size, Nnaji currently ranks in the 90th percentile when it comes to defending spot-up opportunities via Synergy.
DEFENSIVE AWARENESS PART II
If you’re going to offer the potential to be a rim-protecting big, you better have some awareness and timing away from the ball. We’ve got three quick clips here. The first showcases the awareness that James has away from the ball, as he comes over to offer help on a beautifully timed rejection.
The second is another favorite of mine. Nnaji stays alert and understands where the potential windows of attack are on this drive attempt across the lane. Once he anticipates that there’s no potential dump-off, Nnaji times a perfect rejection before securing possession. Finally, we see Nnaji defending the roll man, stressing patience to not get over anxious with the block attempt.
Alright, so let’s talk about the offense now that I’ve got your attention. Nnaji has some promising tools to develop—ones that should have NBA front offices in their feelings regarding his upside. There’s some rawness, and there are some lapses that will need to be ironed out: things such as moving screens or trying to do too much with some passes. Nnaji’s motor is always cooking, though, and his effort will never be in question.
Around the basket, James Nnaji looks like the Incredible Hulk. He can be an absolute maniac to deal with on the boards due to his combination of power and explosiveness. Here we get Nnaji crashing the glass on a field goal attempt. James does a great job of locating the ball at the highest point before gathering himself and exploding for an eye-opening putback.
FLASHES OF FOOTWORK
The footwork for Nnaji can present plenty of flashes. Sometimes, it’s a bit all over the place. Nnaji will try to simply finish with power and can lack some touch around the basket. But then there are some footwork flashes like those shown above that start to get you thinking dangerously. James does a great job here of keeping his balance after this dump-off pass and getting the defensive to bite before trying to destroy the basket.
OFF THE BOUNCE
This is just one of those plays in which you go “okay, hold on a second.” Nnaji has some flashes of untapped ability that will convince NBA organizations that there’s a potential diamond in the rough. James receives a pass at the top of the key before basically paying homage to Thanos and saying “Fine, I’ll do it myself.” Nice little rip-through before Nnaji takes the drive and shows some impressive control to finish around the basket.
There are A LOT of freakish tools just waiting to come together when it comes to international big man James Nnaji. The Nigerian-born big man has been playing limited minutes for EuroLeague powerhouse Barcelona, something that will carry weight with NBA organizations.
Nnaji, listed at 6’10” and 225 pounds, also reportedly has a jaw-dropping 7’7” wingspan. Any team that considers Nnaji for the NBA Draft is going to be investing in a prospect that can find themselves receiving the “project” tag. But with Nnaji, the potential to become a diamond in the rough looks promising. The lack of production can scare some NBA fans, but the upside and flashes should be enough to offer excitement.
As one NBA scout told me at the beginning of the year, “Nnaji would be a first round lock if he played at Texas this year.”
Despite his lack of production, there’s a chance that Nnaji could still hear his name called earlier than some might expect.