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Posted On: 05/11/18 9:00 PM
It’s been an incredible eight months for Hopkins/D1 Minnesota 6-foot-10, 220 pound power forward Zeke Nnaji. Today we run through those eight months and talk about Zeke’s recent visit to Minnesota.
If you look up last year’s Howard Pulley EYBL box scores from the 2017 season you will see that at times Nnaji – who was competing up a grade – played few minutes and there are a few box scores without his name in them.
Nnaji had a really good team camp playing with a partial Pulley team in Madison last June which put Zeke on the Badgers map. The summer was more quiet but everything changed last fall.
In early September after a workout at Hopkins High School Zeke was offered by Coach Greg Gard. Everything started there with that Badger interest (which of course started at Wisconsin team camp).
Hopkins Head Coach Ken Novak Jr recently spoke with Jesse Temple of Land of 10 in Madison and gave a striking quote:
“As soon as Wisconsin gets on them, then everybody else starts wanting to see them,” Novak said. “You get a scholarship from Wisconsin, you’re probably going to get a few more afterwards.
“Wisconsin’s got a great reputation in Minnesota,” Novak continued with Temple. “They’ve got a lot of good Minnesota players over there over the years. I think they just like the school, they like the campus. When I say school, the faculty, the facilities, and they love the coaches.
“Everybody is always impressed with Wisconsin, and I am, too. When the coaches come in, they seem very honest and very straightforward about what’s going on. It’s hard not to like Wisconsin.”
Novak of course also coaches Joseph Hedstrom, a 6-foot-10 center from Hopkins that will be in Madison as a Badger this summer. While watching Hedstrom, the Wisconsin staff was also watching Nnaji.
Nnaji remains grateful to the Badgers for that first offer.
“They saw a light in me before anyone else did,” Zeke said to Palmer. “They believed in me before anyone else. It definitely does mean a lot because they took a gamble and I’m just trying to prove that I deserve the offer that they gave me.”
Shortly after the Badger offer the Hopkins open gyms began to fill up with schools watching, and offering. Richard Pitino offered Zeke after open gym viewings as did Fran McCaffrey of Iowa, Greg McDermott was at open gym and offered on behalf of Creighton, then Tim Miles did the same on behalf of Nebraska.
Zeke had the college options he desired, but it was time for his junior season. As a 6-foot-8 sophomore – notice that Zeke has grown quite a bit in the last year – Nnaji gave the Royals 8.9 points and 6-7 rebounds a game. A solid year but Zeke had plans for more.
This winter Zeke led Hopkins to a 26-2 season scoring 19.4 points per game while playing on a team that had a balanced starting five (Hedstrom, senior Anthony Davis, sophomore top ten in state talents Kerwin Walton and Blaise Beauchamp, Dane Zimmer, and others).
Nnaji spoke with Prep Hoops about the positives and negatives of the season.
“I definitely think that we had a great regular season,” Zeke said. “We were 25-1. However that all means nothing because we weren’t able to make it to state. I think that the season was in some ways a disappointment. We had such high hopes for ourselves yet we weren’t able to reach our goals.”
Zeke is a driven player. The improvements he’s made from his sophomore year (November through July) to his junior year have been eye-opening to many.
“I definitely think that I’ve made a huge stride from last fall,” Zeke said. “I think that I’m stronger and my athleticism has increased like crazy.
“I also think that I’m putting the ball on the floor more and showing more versatility than before. I’ve been trying to work on having a high motor. I think that if I make sure I don’t take any plays off, I can become even better.”
There is zero doubt that Nnaji has improved his motor. At his size Zeke may be the hardest backside cover I’ve seen this year not just because of what he can do physically, but also the way he fights to score in so many ways off the ball along with what he does on the ball.
Nnaji was nearly unstoppable at the Comets Shootout and that is where he let everyone in Minnesota know that his 17u season is all about business. D1 Minnesota won five games in St. Cloud and then Nnaji put the nation on notice two weeks later.
D1 Minnesota is a top ten team in the nation at the 17 and Under level and six guys on the squad have major conference offers. This is a team that shared the ball at all times and efficiently they have built an 8-1 record in the Adidas Gauntlet.
Zeke is averaging 15.1 points per game in Adidas Gauntlet play shooting a ridiculous 68 percent from the field on the 8-9 shots he takes in 22.7 minutes per game. Nnaji has also shown range within his face-up ability making 8 of 17 three-pointers.
Playing the way he has in front of a massive group of college coaches in April led to new offers from schools across the country. Hoping to bring Nnaji to your program? The competition is thick because of the spring offers: Baylor, Illinois, Memphis, Ohio State, Penn State, Oklahoma, Purdue, Xavier, UCLA, Texas Tech, and St. John’s are all now in the mix. Kansas hasn’t offered like the rest but they are making contact.
How important is Zeke Nnaji to the Golden Gophers who are hoping to keep Zeke home? Richard Pitino spent all of his final open period Saturday watching the D1 Minnesota games in Atlanta and at other games the Gopher staff has commonly had two or three guys with eyes on Nnaji.
Zeke spent Thursday night at Minnesota checking out the facilities and Prep Hoops caught up with Nnaji after his visit.
“I really love the new facilities,” Zeke said. “I had heard so much about them but never got a chance to see them. So when I saw them for the first time, my mind was blown. Everything there is set up so that the players can succeed. And everything thing is right in arms reach.”
As a young player Nnaji has followed the Gophers closely. He does have family in Wisconsin, but Zeke has grown up in the Twin Cities watching the maroon and gold.
“I grew up watching and rooting for them, and just to have them recruiting me is a great feeling,” said Nnaji. “They have a great fan base and a great atmosphere there as well.”
So what’s next for Zeke? Visits. He’s mentioned he would like to see more schools (Minnesota, Wisconsin, Creighton, and Nebraska are some that he has been to). Baylor, Xavier, and Purdue are a few he’s mentioned as planning to go see.
There is also the Battle at the Lakes event this weekend. Tonight through Sunday the Twin Cities is hosting the top AAU tournament in Minnesota this year with teams (teams with players that have D1 offers) coming in from Texas, Kansas, Wisconsin, Iowa, Illinois, and of course Minnesota among other places. Zeke and D1 Minnesota will compete in the event starting with their 11:30 Saturday morning game.
Nnaji was a top 200 level recruit nationally at this time last year. He grew to be a top 150 player in the fall and early winter, and with his continual improvement through the second half of the winter and into the spring, Zeke is now being talked about as a four star player in the top 50 area. Nnaji is also the second best prospect in the state behind Matthew Hurt.
The growth of Zeke Nnaji, it’s been fun to watch, and we’ve only seen the beginning.