LA JOLLA, Calif. • No shirt and no shoes were no problem for Zeke Nnaji in the Nuggets’ weight room this summer.
The lack of shoes, at least by traditional standards, was part of Nuggets strength and conditioning coach Felipe Eichenberger’s plan for Nnaji’s summer. During workouts, he put Nnaji in a minimalist shoe with slots for each toe, which simulates being barefoot but provides increased traction.
“He had a lot of ankle sprains. That was one of the biggest concerns going into the summer, so I added a lot of barefoot lifting,” Eichenberger told The Denver Gazette on Wednesday after practice at University of the California San Diego.
“We can’t change his biomechanics, but we can make him stronger. That was the goal, to make his ankles and his joints as strong as possible. … The goal wasn’t to bulk him up. The goal was to make him durable.”
The 10 pounds of muscle Nnaji added in the process, getting him up around 250, was a byproduct of all the lifting. The extra muscle was on display when Nnaji opted to go shirtless while shooting after practice.
“It’s cool to see where he is and how he feels. I think it’s a product of everything he put in this summer and trusting our process of getting there. A lot of players think ‘All right, I’ll stay here for two weeks,’ and they expect to have the results that he had,” Eichenberger said.
“He just bought in, and the results are there.”
Nnaji’s time in the gym was not measured in weeks but months. He told The Denver Gazette the typical workout was an hour of high-intensity, low-rest lifting in the morning before he maintained his jump shot in the afternoon and evenings. Monday and Wednesday were leg days. Tuesday and Thursday were about the core and upper body, while Fridays were spent doing plyometrics.
“Fast forward to training camp, I’m way, way stronger, much faster, more athletic, jumping higher,” Nnaji said. “My body feels great. We did a lot of injury prevention stuff as well. It was all around just very helpful for all aspects of my game.”
That was on display in the final quarter of Friday’s scrimmage. Nnaji put down one emphatic dunk and scored a few more baskets off strong finishes around the rim. It was a continuation of an impressive training camp at the University of California San Diego.
“Zeke’s had a great camp – not a good camp, a great camp,” Nuggets coach Michael Malone said after Friday’s practice.
The coach added Nnaji has been primarily playing the five this preseason. Nnaji said earlier in the week he feels most comfortable at the four but being the back up center could be the quickest route to consistent playing time.
When Malone named his initial rotations, veterans Jeff Green and DeAndre Jordan were the bigs in the second unit, but Nnaji brings something different to the table. The 21-year-old is a 43.9% shooter from 3-point range through two NBA seasons and is regarded as one of the most versatile defenders on the team. Playing the five, Malone said, simplifies the game for the player who spent one season at Arizona before the Nuggets selected him with the 22nd pick of the 2020 draft, allowing him to focus on rebounding, defending, running the court and playing in the pick and roll.
Injuries have, in part, limited Nnaji to 83 games in his professional career. Just when he looked to have an opportunity to carve out a role last season, bilateral knee soreness sidelined him for most of the final two months of the season.
“All that stuff is in the past now,” Nnaji said. “I’m so glad, because it really sucked. I felt like I was playing great and then to have that happen, it was a bummer. But I’m great now.”
That’s the result of a summer committed to Eichenberger’s plan. Nnaji said he hoped to return to Nigeria where his family’s foundation opened the first of a series of basketball courts and educational centers. Instead, the weight room took precedence.
“That was something I was looking forward to doing, but I ended up not having time to do that,” Nnaji said.
“I want to be dominant at this level and felt like I had a lot of time to work on it, so as soon as the season ended, I really began. I didn’t leave to go back home or anything like that. I stayed in Denver. I just began working.”
While some players opted to spend their summer elsewhere, Nnaji only went back to Minnesota briefly in early August for his basketball camp. His work was rewarded with increased durability, an improved physique and a before-and-after photo placed in the Nuggets weight room alongside a sign that reads “What did you do this summer?” according to Malone.
“he’s put a lot of time and energy into getting stronger,” Malone said Wednesday.
“You know he’s going to work hard. That’s just how he’s been raised. He’s a tremendous kid, tremendous person, great work ethic. He’s playing well. He’s impacting the game. He’s on the offensive glass. He’s finishing. He’s one of our more vocal defenders out there. Really happy and proud of Zeke Nnaji.”