The Denver Nuggets entered the NBA draft with just one pick, the 22nd overall selection, but acquired two first-round talents in the span of 10 minutes Wednesday.
Tim Connelly and company drafted Arizona freshman center/forward Zeke Nnaji, originally from Hopkins, Minn., with the 22nd pick in a digitized draft. Roughly 10 minutes later, the Nuggets traded for R.J. Hampton, New Orleans’ pick at 24. The Nuggets will send the Pelicans a future draft pick, according to reports.
The 6-foot-11 Nnaji was the Pac 12 Freshman of the Year after averaging 16.1 points and 8.6 rebounds for the Wildcats last season.
He shot 57% from the field, 76% from the free-throw line and started all 32 of Arizona’s games last season. He’s aware none of that will help him at the next level.
“It feels great because I’ve been working to get to the NBA for so long, but I know this is just the beginning, you know. I know that now the button resets and it doesn’t matter where you’re drafted,” Nnaji said. “Now, it matters how much work you put in. I’m a worker. I’m ready to work. I’m going to get better. I’m just going to let my game do the talking.”
Hampton, a bouncy, 6-5 guard born in Dallas, was a consensus five-star recruit as a senior in high school before bypassing college basketball and signing to play professionally for the New Zealand Breakers. He averaged 8.8 points, 3.9 rebounds, 2.4 assists and 1.1 steals while shooting 40.7% from the field in his first year as a professional.
Both players figure to have complicated roads to playing time as NBA rookies. Nnaji could be an insurance pick with Jerami Grant, Paul Millsap, Mason Plumlee and Noah Vonleh currently free agents. Star center Nikola Jokic is all but guaranteed to be in Denver for the first few years of Nnaji’s professional career, something that excites the rookie.
“He’s one of the best centers in the league. His vision, his passing is incredible,” Nnaji said. “He’s super talented, high IQ. I’m excited to learn from him and to get to work with him.”
Hampton joins a point guard position occupied by starter Jamal Murray and Monte Morris, one of Denver's top reserves.
Whatever his role ends up being, Nnaji is happy to start his career with a Nuggets team looking to take another step forward after reaching the Western Conference Finals last season.
“I’m just ready to work hard for the Nuggets. I’m just so excited. This is just the beginning of this new chapter of my life. I’m just ready,” Nnaji said.
“Whatever the team needs from me, I’ll step up and take on that role. If they need me to play the four, I’ll play the four. If they need me to play the five, I’ll play the five. I’m just willing to do whatever it takes to win.”
Colorado’s Tyler Bey taken by Dallas Mavericks
Former Colorado Buffaloes forward Tyler Bey became a Dallas Maverick early in the second round of the draft.
The Mavericks worked out a trade with Philadelphia that returned guard Josh Richardson and the 36th overall pick, the fifth pick of the second round. With that pick Dallas selected the forward who averaged 13.8 points and eight rebounds in the final of his three college seasons.
“They're getting a tremendous athlete, who's going to make plays that not too many people can make physically, given his length and his ability to jump and his ability to get off the floor so quickly,” Colorado coach Tad Boyle said in an athletic department release. “And he's also going to be a guy who's going to grow and develop and get better as he acclimates to the NBA game. He’s got all the physical tools, and now it's a matter of him just getting back in the gym and using his work ethic to continue to improve and grow into the player that that Dallas is going to appreciate, and certainly the Colorado fans have appreciated that over the last three years watching Tyler come in as a freshman, and grow into a terrific, terrific player.”