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Nuggets select Arizona C Zeke Nnaji with No. 22 pick, trade for RJ Hampton at No. 24


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The Nuggets could’ve gone any num­ber of routes with their first-round pick in the NBA draft Wednes­day night. They chose both.

With the No. 22 pick, Den­ver select­ed Ari­zona big man Zeke Nna­ji. Two picks lat­er, the Nuggets trad­ed a future lot­tery-pro­tect­ed first-round pick to New Orleans for com­bo guard RJ Hamp­ton, who played last sea­son with the New Zealand Break­ers, league sources told The Den­ver Post.

Nna­ji, who inter­viewed twice with the Nuggets and worked out for them, made a sig­nif­i­cant impres­sion on Denver’s front office dur­ing one of his inter­views.

Nuggets pres­i­dent of bas­ket­ball oper­a­tions Tim Con­nel­ly jok­ing­ly asked Nna­ji, an accom­plished pianist, if he want­ed to per­form dur­ing one of their Zoom inter­views. The next thing Con­nel­ly and his staff knew, Nna­ji was on a vir­tu­al inter­view play­ing the keys for a few min­utes, league sources said.

It was exact­ly the type of organ­ic moment the Nuggets look for when assess­ing a player’s per­son­al­i­ty.

“I felt like our con­ver­sa­tions went real­ly well,” Nna­ji said Wednes­day night. “We built a pret­ty good rela­tion­ship from those inter­views and from the work­out.”

In one fell swoop, the Nuggets added size, ener­gy and play­mak­ing to a ros­ter fac­ing sev­er­al major ques­tion marks. In Hamp­ton, the Nuggets added anoth­er high-lev­el prospect who slipped well below most pro­jec­tions, like they did with Michael Porter Jr. in 2018 and Bol Bol in 2019.

Nna­ji, a 6‑foot-11 fresh­man, aver­aged 16.1 points and 8.6 rebounds in his lone sea­son in col­lege. His addi­tion offers a dras­tic change of pace to Nuggets cen­ter­piece Niko­la Jokic. Nna­ji, the Pac-12 fresh­man of the year, has the mobil­i­ty and defen­sive ver­sa­til­i­ty to help insu­late Jokic. Nna­ji, a 76% free throw shoot­er, has shown a con­fi­dent shoot­ing stroke to help com­ple­ment his high-ener­gy motor.

“I’ve been work­ing a lot dur­ing these quar­an­tine times, and I feel like I’ve made a lot of improve­ments,” Nna­ji said. “I’ve added 20 pounds of mus­cle, I’ve real­ly improved my jump shot, shoot­ing the 3‑point well. I feel great, I feel explo­sive, I feel quick. I’m just excit­ed to do what­ev­er I can to help our team win.”

His rebound­ing and ener­gy should offer a sig­nif­i­cant boost off the bench, even if min­utes this sea­son might be lim­it­ed. Fans of his cite his work eth­ic, which is always a key ele­ment for the Nuggets. In addi­tion, he projects as some­one who has sig­nif­i­cant room to grow.

Denver’s deci­sion to take a big man may act as insur­ance with much of their front­court — Jera­mi Grant, Paul Mill­sap and Mason Plum­lee — fac­ing free agency.

Hamp­ton, a prob­ing, down­hill dri­ver, aver­aged 8.8 points and 2.4 assists over­seas. As a cre­ator and a scor­er, Hamp­ton should have a more offen­sive mind­set than Gary Har­ris, who’s offen­sive strug­gles are well doc­u­ment­ed. At his size (6‑foot‑5, 185), Hamp­ton pro­files as a poten­tial­ly sound defend­er, though his play­mak­ing abil­i­ties are his best attrib­ut­es.

In prepa­ra­tion for the draft, Hamp­ton honed his out­side shoot­ing with for­mer NBA sniper Mike Miller.

AP19292284041503 - Nuggets select Arizona C Zeke Nnaji with No. 22 pick, trade for RJ Hampton at No. 24
Rick Rycroft, The Asso­ci­at­ed Press

Rod­er­ick “R. J.” Hamp­ton of the New Zealand Break­ers, right, goes around Casper Ware of the Syd­ney Kings in their Nation­al Bas­ket­ball League game in Syd­ney, Fri­day, Oct. 18, 2019.

This sto­ry will be updat­ed…

dp sports?d=yIl2AUoC8zA - Nuggets select Arizona C Zeke Nnaji with No. 22 pick, trade for RJ Hampton at No. 24 dp sports?i=QVT1efsnaio:mJkIQ6VQ3sM:F7zBnMyn0Lo - Nuggets select Arizona C Zeke Nnaji with No. 22 pick, trade for RJ Hampton at No. 24 dp sports?d=qj6IDK7rITs - Nuggets select Arizona C Zeke Nnaji with No. 22 pick, trade for RJ Hampton at No. 24 dp sports?i=QVT1efsnaio:mJkIQ6VQ3sM:V sGLiPBpWU - Nuggets select Arizona C Zeke Nnaji with No. 22 pick, trade for RJ Hampton at No. 24

QVT1efsnaio - Nuggets select Arizona C Zeke Nnaji with No. 22 pick, trade for RJ Hampton at No. 24

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