This Piano-Playing Phenom Is Turning NBA Scouts’ Heads
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because he’s rocketing onto the league's radar.
By Brendon Kleen
Before Zeke Nnaji’s senior season at Hopkins High School in Minnesota, the kid now lighting it up at the University of Arizona had a simple imperative from his coaches: Don’t score.
For the entire preseason fall league, Nnaji effectively didn’t take a shot, setting the table for teammates and developing his skills as a playmaker. “Success energizes him,” says Hopkins assistant coach and family friend Kerry Sutherland of the player who would go on to score 24 points per game during the season. “All he does is play hard and smile.” It can be hard to imagine that the star for the No. 15 Wildcats — who is pouring in 16.6 points per game, notching among the nation’s leaders in field goal percentage and rocketing onto the NBA radar — has such a selfless side, but you can trace it back to his Nigerian-American family’s dinner table.
“I don’t believe in free lunches or handouts,” says Apham, Zeke’s father. “I don’t say good morning to my kids. They greet me. They’re polite. You don’t tell me what you want to eat, I tell you your options. There’s a different culture [for Nigerians] in raising kids. You raise kids to appreciate what they have.”
I always have confidence whenever I shoot the ball, or else I wouldn’t shoot it.
Zeke is allergic to taking credit. He chuckles when praised. He deflects to teammates and coaches when asked about his accomplishments. “It’s great that I’m in this position right now, but it wasn’t anything that I was coming out and saying I’m going to be this elite scorer and all that stuff,” Nnaji recently told the Pac-12 Network. “I’m just happy it’s coming to me.”
Apham, a soccer player as a child in Nigeria and near-Olympic-level decathlete, noticed special athleticism and skill in his son at a young age. Though Zeke excelled in both soccer and American football, he wouldn’t stop growing. “We were replacing his soccer cleats like every six months,” Apham says.
Hoping to avoid the dangers of tackle football, Apham, whose younger brother played hoops at the University of Florida in the 1990s, prodded his son toward basketball. He encouraged Zeke — who now stands 6-foot-11 — to play on the perimeter and develop a broad skill set. “I didn’t want him stuck in the middle,” Apham says.
It stuck. Zeke took to basketball quickly, matching up with kids two grades above him and applying the same work ethic he did with his studies and playing the piano. Distractions were limited: Zeke didn’t get a cellphone until he was in high school, and after basketball practice had to shovel snow and finish his homework before earning any free time.
It’s paying off. During one two-game stretch in November, Nnaji hit 17 straight shots. Though he’s had a couple of rocky games recently, the freshman will be critical to a marquee matchup Saturday against No. 6 Gonzaga.
Nnaji’s college teammates got a taste of his unique talents off the court as well when, before a preseason scrimmage, he busted out the keyboard to play the national anthem in front of a packed McKale Center. “My parents raised me well, and they always took pride in being multitalented,” he told Pac-12 Network.
It’s a stunning start for a freshman who was not at the top of his high school class, rated a mere four out of five stars. For those wondering if the offensive output will continue, Nnaji has something to say: “I always have confidence whenever I shoot the ball, or else I wouldn’t shoot it.”
In other words, What do you think?
His teammates, at least, saw it coming. “What you guys are seeing now, he’s been doing it since the summer,” says point guard Nico Mannion, the most hyped member of Arizona’s stellar freshman class. Arizona is 9-1 in large part thanks to Nnaji shoring up the frontcourt and dominating both ends of the floor. He can bust zones from the free-throw line as a dual-threat playmaker, and force turnovers inside and outside defensively. “Having him just bring that energy every single day is amazing,” says five-star freshman wing Josh Green.
That freshman class — which head coach Sean Miller believes could be the best of his decade in Tucson — is putting the Wildcats in contention, even amid the cloud of a federal bribery investigation into illegal recruiting that saw an Arizona assistant coach sentenced to prison over the summer. The threat of NCAA sanctions hangs over the program.
They loom over recruiting too. It took a detailed inquiry by Apham to seal the deal for Zeke to attend Arizona over Kansas, their other top choice.
Apham, an executive managing partner at the Twin Cities financing firm Soltrite Logistics, read “everything I could get my hands on” online, kept a detailed spreadsheet with information on every school that offered his son a scholarship and even conducted private interviews with people close to each college program connected to the FBI investigation. His personal research and the University of Arizona’s independent investigation gave Apham faith in the program. Other schools swept up in the pay-to-play scandal — Kansas was recently hit with NCAA violations — didn’t fare as well. And the Nnaji pipeline may well continue: Arizona’s women’s basketball program recently offered a scholarship to Zeke’s sister Maya, a top recruit.
Chemistry developed quickly in Tucson, quieting noise about investigations for now. Zeke says he thought there would be more egos and infighting. Focusing on basketball rather than hype is his preference.
That lack of flash perhaps explains how Nnaji went somewhat overlooked by the recruiting services. But he’s starting to earn notice going to classes and to restaurants around Tucson. The NBA is next, as 247 Sports Recruiting Director Evan Daniels recently said Nnaji could be a lottery pick in the 2020 draft.
After years of making sure Zeke did things a certain way, Apham knows it’s time to start letting go. “This is his dream,” Apham says. “I’m not going to stop in front of him and tell him, ‘You can’t pursue your dream.’ He wants this.”
- Brendon Kleen, OZY AuthorContact Brendon Kleen