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Posted On: 07/3/18 9:00 PM
Six-foot-11 Hopkins power forward Zeke Nnaji found that commitment to work in the weight room to go with his four star basketball ability was the perfect ingredient to make him one of the top frontcourt prospects in all of the 2019 class nationally.
Nnaji spent his spring helping D1 Minnesota to a 25-1 record and the number three ranking in all of 17 and Under basketball. Since Memorial Day the team has been off playing with their high school teams, looking at some schools, and doing more individual items before the July push hits.
“It’s been a good summer so far, I’m getting workouts in five days a week,” Zeke explained. “I’m just making sure that I’m not sitting around as I need to stay in shape as we get ready for this July period.”
One activity that Nnaji enjoyed in June was trying out for the USA 17 and Under team that is currently playing in Argentina. An injury to Zeke’s Achilles forced him to miss the last few tryout practices but the experience was tremendous for Nnaji.
“It was humbling to be invited and I was extremely excited to go out to (Colorado),” Zeke said. “Being out there seeing the best competition play with and against one another, that was really cool. Nobody played selfish or was trying to run the show on their own, they all played good team basketball.
“The biggest take-a-way I had from going out there was that every second, every play, you can’t time any time off. At an experience like that, if you end up losing out or having any regrets, it would be tough so you have to make sure there are no regrets at all.”
To truly know how what motivates Zeke you have to look back to the 2017 Peach Jam when Nnaji played with Howard Pulley and did not see the time he wanted. Sitting on the bench for that event was hard, but it was also the perfect motivator for what Zeke has become.
“I had people come up to me and talk to me about other people that were talking behind my back and it didn’t bother me as much as it did to motivate me, it just made me want to prove everyone wrong,” Zeke said. “If someone says something I am going to work my hardest to show them that they are wrong. If I work hard enough I can accomplish anything.”
Nnaji went right to work last August improving his skills and getting in the weight room. By the fall he was earning scholarship offers and then come winter Zeke scored 20 points per game on a balanced scoring Hopkins team that lost two games all season. What were the biggest factors on Zeke pushing himself to be one of the nation’s most improved players?
“I think getting stronger was the most important thing that helped my game,” Nnaji said. “With the skills I have, my strength was lacking so I wasn’t able to use my skills the way I would have liked.
“I worked on my balance, I got stronger hitting the weight room a lot which has really helped me, and while I’m not quite where I want to be as I am 230 pounds and my goal is to be 235 or 240, I know I need to continue to get stronger because I know the next level is going to be a lot more physical. I want to be able to handle that physicality at the next level.”
Nnaji has put all of his strengths and abilities to work with D1 Minnesota allowing him to stand out among a stacked team of national names. Matthew Hurt is one of the elite recruits in the nation, Pat McCaffrey is a top 50 four star talent, Tyrell Terry is a top 100 four star talent, and Tyler Wahl is a top 125 four star level talent, and of course Zeke is a top 40 level four star player.
“It’s so fun playing with these guys,” Zeke said. “It’s fun because we are winning and nobody on this team is selfish or shot hunting. We are all just having a good team playing together and we are like a family. We look out for each other, we want to make each other better, and on this team if somebody has a better shot and they are open, we are going to get that shot for you. We are just so unselfish. We play hard and we play together.”
Last fall Zeke earned offers from Wisconsin, Minnesota, Creighton, and Nebraska but this fall playing with D1 Minnesota in the Adidas events, the offers for Nnaji quickly accumulated. Baylor, Xavier, Memphis, Oklahoma, UCLA, Indiana, Ohio State, and Arizona and others, they all came in along with Nnaji jumping up the charts as a nationally ranked player.
“My goals are starting to pay off,” Zeke said about all of these honors. “My goal will always be to be number one, why settle for the way I am right now, but I am just working really hard trying to continue to get better. To receive these opportunities, it just shows that hard work is paying off.”
Iowa was one of the teams to offer Zeke early on and not only does Zeke play with Pat McCaffery but in competing with D1 Minnesota, a regular at the games is Iowa Head Coach Fran McCaffrey who is able to watch his son regardless if it’s an open period or not. The Hawkeyes have Zeke’s interest.
“At Iowa I like that I know a lot of the guys there,” Zeke said. ” I went there for a trip and I know Patrick obviously as he is committed there and his dad is somebody I see a lot because he is always at our games. I know them very well.”
Zeke made his high major mark initially at Wisconsin Team Camp over 12 months ago and they were not only the first program to show major interest but the Badgers were also the first program to offer Zeke a scholarship overall.
“They believed in me from the beginning and they saw my potential before I was there,” Nnaji explained. “I know that they believe in me and I know that they will develop me along with the other bigs as that’s something that they are known for. That’s a program that would be really good for me.”
The Arizona Wildcats offered Zeke and since the offer Sean Miller and their staff have recruited Nnaji with a lot of effort.
“They’ve always been a good school and they are a blue blood. They have been texting me a lot and have put in the effort to have a relationship with me. I think that they could really help me and develop me for the next level as I know that they have done that with a lot of players.”
The hometown Minnesota Gophers were one of the first programs to offer Zeke a scholarship and his recent trip to see the Minnesota facilities opened Nnaji’s eyes.
“You know I really liked how close everything was together,” Nnaji stated. “Especially in Athlete’s Village. It’s incredible, it’s top of the line and brand new. If you go anywhere else in the country you won’t find facilities as good as that. I just liked that and I liked how they keep all of the athletes together. It’s a great environment for athletes. You can go there and there are no distractions because everyone is there focused on their sport.
“And all of the guys that are there – Daniel, Gabe, and Jarvis – I know them all really well and I think playing with them would be really good. The facilities are incredible, the coaches are great, and I think that would be a good fit.”
There are of course several other programs in regular contact with Zeke.
“Xavier, UCLA, Indiana, Georgetown, Baylor, Texas Tech, and the ones previously mentioned (Minnesota, Arizona, Iowa, Wisconsin) off the top of my head those are the ones talking to me the most right now.”