The Denver Nuggets entered the 2020 NBA Draft Wednesday night armed only with one first-round draft pick, No. 22 acquired from Houston in a deadline trade last season.
By the end of the night, they’d landed two first-rounders in Arizona center Zeke Nnaji, who the Nuggets selected with the 22nd pick, and guard R.J. Hampton of the New Zealand Breakers, acquired via trade from New Orleans after he was drafted 24th overall. Denver also reached an agreement on a two-way contract with undrafted point guard Markus Howard, a superlative shooter who led the NCAA in scoring in his senior year at Marquette.
Three players was a bigger draft night haul than might have been expected from a team about which president of basketball operations Tim Connelly said last month, “I think in a perfect world, we’d like to bring the lion’s share of our team back.”
While keeping the band together may well remain the Nuggets’ primary aim, the draft moves made by Connelly, general manager Calvin Booth and Denver’s front office staff add a new inflow of talent into the pipeline which will ultimately produce replacements for at least some of the Nuggets’ current players and free agents.
A large number of Denver’s impending free agents are coming from the frontcourt. That includes prominent rotation players Jerami Grant, Paul Millsap and Mason Plumlee, who are unrestricted, as well as Torrey Craig, who became restricted after the Nuggets extended his $2.5 million qualifying offer to him earlier this week.
As such, the selection of Nnaji in particular provides some backup depth insurance in the more-than-likely event one or more of Denver’s bigs or wings finds a new NBA home.
And while Hampton may be on a longer developmental curve than Nnaji – his jump shot in particular is very much a work in progress – he likewise stands to be an eventual replacement candidate for Gary Harris or Will Barton III, both of whom are among the Nuggets’ more likely trade candidates should a potential deal for a Bradley Beal or some other high-level talent upgrade emerge.
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Nnaji and Hampton are vastly different players in many ways, but several through-lines run through both their profiles, with one of the most notable of these being the high degree of athleticism both players possess.
Infusing more of that into the current Nuggets roster adds a quality it somewhat lacks, with players like Nikola Jokic, Jamal Murray and Monte Morris relying more heavily on skill and smarts than sheer athleticism. And the Nuggets are certainly hoping those qualities will be a fitting complement to their core players.
Zeke Nnaji: “Motor”
In speaking about what kind of basketball player he considers himself to be, Nnaji always seems to circle back to his motor. In a post-draft interview with Altitude’s Chris Dempsey and Katy Winge, Nnaji explained how he sees his own game:
“I’m a high-energy, high-motor player, Nnaji said. “Run the floor, I just play hard, relentless rebounder, versatile offensively and defensively, …can switch onto guards and guard bigs, take advantage of mismatches…, step out and shoot the three, pick-and-pop, pick-and-roll.”
“I feel like versatility and just having a high motor is really my game,” Nnaji added.
The motor is real, and immediately evident in the film. Nnaji is more often than not seen pogo-sticking around the rim, battling for rebounds, finishing on cuts and rolls and (despite a concerningly low block rate) contesting shots.
He also runs the floor extremely well for his size, getting out on the break and finishing authoritatively at the other end.
According to Nnaji, he weighed in at 230 at the end of last season, but he then went to work adding 20 pounds of muscle since then to bulk up to 250 – impressively, doing so at the same time he went vegan.
As some draft analysts seem less sold on his switchability on defense, adding strength while trimming down to 5.6% body fat could help Nnaji by improving his mobility, as well as his ability to body up against the league’s stronger bigs and wings.
R.J. Hampton: “Explosive”
Draft analyst Sam Vecenie of The Athletic describes R.J. Hampton as “extremely athletic, fluid and explosive.” Chad Ford of Chad Ford’s Big Board says Hampton is an “explosive athlete who has both leaping ability and speed.” The Ringer’s Kevin O’Connor writes that Hampton “can hit turbo on drives to the rim, and has explosiveness when elevating for layups.”
The Nuggets really don’t have a legitimately “explosive” athlete on their roster, at least until now. The closest recently was Malik Beasley, who along with Juancho Hernangomez was traded at the deadline for the pick that became Nnaji.
Not only is Hampton in need of more time to develop, he also is sure to begin his Nuggets career buried low on Denver’s lengthy guard depth chart, with at least four or five players above him in the pecking order.
That said, if injuries or other circumstances open the door to some playing time, the impact of his athleticism could set Hampton apart as the fastest Nuggets guard, the one with the quickest first step and, perhaps, the best ability to slash to the rim.
Hampton still needs to add strength, but at six-foot-five with his quickness and physical tools, he has the potential to become a capable defender as well as a potent spark on offense.
Although he may be better suited off the ball than as a primary ball handler, as a guard coming off the bench Hampton’s speed and ability to push the pace in transition could help him facilitate a change-of-pace offense that plays much faster than the Nuggets’ generally slow pace when Jokic and Murray are on the court.
But in order to reach a point where Hampton can stay on the floor in meaningful minutes, he will need to continue working on his shooting, which he has in fact been doing with former Nuggets veteran sage Mike Miller. Like Michael Porter Jr. and Bol Bol before him, Hampton was a top high school prospect whose once-high draft stock eventually fell, and in his case the main concern was his jump shot. It would not be surprising to see the Nuggets send him to the G League, where he can get the reps he needs to get his jumper into more workable form.
Athleticism isn’t the only thing Nnaji and Hampton have in common. As with most prospects the Nuggets target, both are reputed to have very strong work ethics and get high marks on character.
Also, both are just 19 years of age with some growing to do before reaching a rotation player level of NBA readiness.
While some Nuggets fans may be disappointed that Denver didn’t draft players who might have a more immediate impact, this is part of the groundwork Tim Connelly is laying to put into place the next wave of up-and-coming talent to keep fueling both the team’s continued improvement and its regeneration.
It’ll take some time for both Nnaji and Hampton to be ready for prime time – as remains true of their new teammate Bol Bol, who’s a year ahead of them on what should be a similarly-paced development track.
But with Hampton’s quick attack and fast pace, with Nnaji’s drive and turbo-charged motor, both of Denver’s new first-round draft picks look to be exciting additions who will help diversify the Nuggets’ offense with the unique qualities they bring to the table.