The roadmap for a young player to succeed is often under appreciated.
When a young player is drafted in the NBA — especially in the lottery — they’re often given time and patience to succeed, be it with the team that’s drafted them themselves or with their G League affiliate. When it comes down it, playing time and opportunity aren’t roadblocks on the path to greatness for these types of players.
But for others it’s not always so simple and opportunity is the one thing they can’t easily obtain.
On the top teams in Europe — barring top-top talent like a Luka Doncic, for example — young players just aren’t as much of a priority for EuroLeague teams to play and playing time for aspiring players can be extremely limited because (A) young players usually are not as good as the established players already on the roster and (B) why waste time developing a player that has NBA aspirations and you know won’t be part of your setup long term, why get used to depending on them and having them around if you know they’re leaving?
That brings us to today’s prospect, 18-year-old (turning 19 in August) Nigerian center James Nnaji of FC Barcelona, who hasn’t got the game time he would’ve wanted mostly due to the fact Barcelona is a stacked team.
Standing at 6 feet, 11 inches with a 7-foot-5 inch wingspan, Nnaji found playing time difficult for Euroleague giant Barcelona, averaging 3.5 points per game on 70% shooting from the field on 2.1 field goal attempts, 46% from the free throw line on 1.2 attempts, 2.2 rebounds, 0.3 assists, 0.6 blocks, 0.16 steals, 0.8 turnovers and 1.2 personal fouls in an average of 9.4 minutes per game in 50 games played across all competitions, per Real GM.
The stats are obviously underwhelming but they won’t do a lot of justice for Nnaji’s season because he didn’t get a ton of opportunities to play — hard to show what you’re capable of when you average two shots a game and less than 10 minutes.
Still, despite that — in the mock drafts I’ve seen so far when looking at other prospects — Nnaji’s name is one I’ve often skimmed past as a first-round projection. With stats like that, you might ask why?
Let’s take a look and find out (Nnaji wears number 46).
Right now, Nnaji is essentially all about the pick-and-roll, screen-and-roll — he’s not shooting jumpshots, he’s not taking threes, he’s not really driving from the perimeter or bringing the ball up the floor and creating. Nnaji is a big, big body with a fantastic frame at 18 years old and that’s really all he does offensively right now: he sets screens and rolls to the rim where he is a great lob target.
Nnaji is a willing screener, as we’ll see on more than a few occasions, and he sets a few screens on this possession before he’s found for the alley-oop despite the presence of Edy Tavares:
On the slip this time, Nnaji is thrown the alley-oop and finishes with authority at the rim:
Again on the slip, Nnaji gets in behind the defense and presents himself as a target to aim for and he finishes with the dunk:
Off the screen, Nnaji is fed the ball at the free throw line this time where he takes it, swivels and showcases his athleticism with the dunk:
Nnaji can finish with more finesse than just athletic finishes in these scenarios too.
Coming off the screen, Nnaji is fed the ball inside and finishes using glass despite the vertical challenge beside him:
Nnaji sets multiple screens on this possession before being fed the ball on the roll and he hangs beautifully to finish at the rim despite the strong contest:
I thought Nnaji’s hands were very good too: I didn’t see him dropping or mishandling on his catches. When the ball was thrown to him, he would get it, and I think this plays into his efficiency from the field — a safe pair of hands.
Perhaps not as much of a safe pair of feet, his footwork getting him into trouble at times as he would be called for travels:
Again you can see how willing a screen-setter Nnaji is before he’s fed the ball inside but travels:
Again on the block Nnaji gets his feet mixed up a tad and is called for the travel here:
I did enjoy Nnaji’s patience inside at times, waiting for the defenders to leave their feet before going up with the ball.
On this pick-and-roll, Nnaji receives the ball inside, fakes, gets the defender off his feet and then goes up to finish, scoring and drawing the foul:
At the rim, Nnaji fakes to get two defenders off their feet and is fouled on his way up as he finishes at the rim for the chance at the and-one:
There’s little to say about Nnaji’s passing, averaging 0.3 assists but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t play-make.
Nnaji’s screen setting is quite strong, and he’s certainly willing to get his body in there to create separation for his teammates for shot opportunities.
A good screen here from Nnaji opens up a great look behind the arc that isn’t converted:
A good down screen from Nnaji takes the defender completely out of the equation and frees up his teammate to hit the three:
On the wing this time, Nnaji creates a large opening with the screen but the three is missed:
With his body, it’s going to be hard to go through that or get around that easily — it’s extremely impressive that Nnaji has an NBA body before he’s turned 19.
However, sometimes Nnaji is setting these screens and it’s almost doing more harm than good — sometimes they don’t create switches, don’t create contact and don’t open up things for the offense.
Instances similar to this:
With Nnaji being the screen-setter he is and making multiple efforts, sometimes there are possessions like this where Nnaji sets two ineffective screens, but on the third one he makes contact before committing the travelling turnover inside:
Overall Nnaji sets more good screens than he does these, and because he can sometimes set multiple screens eventually one will hit its mark. But he can clog the lane in the process, which will be part of the problem for the type of player he is right now where it’s all pick-and-roll-based and you need him near the rim to be in any way effective offensively.
For his size, I wouldn’t call Nnaji the greatest rebounder in the world nor the greatest of rim protectors/defenders. I don’t think there’s one single aspect defensively that he does extremely well in versus other aspects, so we’ll just look at some of his good defensive moments.
A good block here from Nnaji as he recovers from getting off his feet to get a second chance and he blocks the shot:
Here, a good contest at the rim versus the very tall and long Edy Tavares:
And even better one later in the same game:
On a switch, Nnaji does well to stay with the driver and contests well at the rim to help force the miss:
Sometimes Nnaji’s mere presence near the rim is enough for offensive players to change course, as Nnaji steps in here he halts the drive to the rim and helps force the pass out of the lane, and it ends in a turnover:
A good rotation from Nnaji to cut off the path to the rim prompts a pass that ends in a turnover:
On this play, Nnaji gets in a good dig on the drive to knock the ball loose and disrupt the flow of the offensive player who puts up the rushed shot after gathering the ball:
For some of Nnaji’s more negative moments defensively, these come in a few forms.
He obviously struggles on switches out on the perimeter, he just doesn’t quite have that mobility to live with drives, so at times he can very much be left on an island as he is on this possession where he’s driven by and commits the foul on the made basket:
In the post, Nnaji should have the positioning and strength to fend off the challenge here but is angled away and is beaten to the rim:
I can’t imagine Nnaji was supposed to allow his man to break through the box on this possession, but he catches a break as he reaches in to knock the ball off the offensive player and out of bounds:
Nnaji gets caught ball-watching here and this allows his man to get in ahead of him and claim the offensive rebound:
James Nnaji is an intriguing prospect.
Offensively, you know exactly what you’re getting: it’s ball screens (sometimes multiple in a possession), it’s pick-and-roll, and it’s a lob target at the rim and someone with a steady pair of hands to finish high percentage shots at a high percentage. While also possessing a little finesse too when required and the patience to get into good spots, he does need to improve his footwork, including in how he sets himself on catches.
While this is a limited offensive role that can clog up the lane at times and the first sometimes second screen doesn’t yield results, there is always a role in the NBA for an athletic big with a great body to set screens and roll to the rim. There is absolutely a role for this type of player in this league.
I think the hope would be that you introduce some more variance in offense, whether that’s a 15-footer jump shot, a little more finesse in post situations, a little floater or anything that can open up Nnaji’s game away from the rim to make him a threat both at the rim and a little away from it too. It will be a project — Nnaji will very much be a project player — and whoever selects Nnaji will need to commit development time in the G League or internationally because he just needs game time — he just hasn’t had enough game time.
Defensively I’d like to see more in all aspects. I’d like to see more shot-blocking, more snappy rotations — because I think with the rotations we’ve seen players who feel they need to get out of there when he rotates over — this can be a great strength defensively because he’s a big body that people should be afraid of on rotations and create indecision. I think he is a little slow-footed out on the perimeter on switches at times, and this could affect his playability if he’s going to be beaten on every drive on switches.
Let’s take a look at what other outlets say when it comes to James Nnaji and where he is mocked.
ESPN have Nnaji ranked 24th in among their top-100 Best Available list, with Jonathan Givony having this to add on Nnaji:
Feb. 4, 2023
Playing for Barcelona, currently in first place in the Spanish ACB and third in the EuroLeague, minutes haven’t been easy to come by for 18-year-old Nnaji in his team’s stacked frontcourt rotation.
Two recent starting nods in domestic league play have allowed NBA scouts to get a deeper look at the chiseled 6-11 Nigerian with a 7-4 wingspan, and he responded by posting 32 points and eight rebounds in 43 minutes of action on near-perfect 13-for-14 shooting, leaving one to wonder how productive he would be in a situation with more consistent playing time. Nnaji’s virtues are readily obvious at first glance, as he’s one of the most physically gifted prospects in this draft class, blessed with incredible quickness getting off his feet for dunks and blocks, and outstanding mobility running the floor and covering ground defensively. He draws quite a few fouls with his enviable combination of speed, power and explosiveness, putting pressure on opposing defenses every time he rolls to the basket and offering a significant vertical spacing target with his improving hands and huge catch radius.
I’ll interject here and agree with Givony’s assessment of athleticism with his power and explosiveness and how he puts defense’s under pressure. Givony was also left to wonder at the level of Nnaji’s production if given consistent minutes, and it’s certainly something to think about.
It’s the next aspect of his assessment that I’m not as sure on.
Nnaji is also making subtle improvement as the season continues with his passing and ability to take slower defenders off the dribble in a straight line with huge strides, things that are very much a work in progress due to his average skill level but are still encouraging to see considering his lack of experience.
Nnaji only started playing basketball in July 2016 and moved to Ratgeber Basketball Academy in Hungary off a Facebook post he made following the Giants of Africa camp in 2018. He spent two years in Hungary before moving to Barcelona in August 2020, progressing through the ranks of their junior teams and the Spanish fifth division to carve out the role he has now.
I’ll be honest — and this is the only point my assessment of Nnaji differs majorly to Givony’s— I didn’t get this impression from Nnaji watching him when it comes to both his passing and his straight-line dribbling. In all the games I watched of Nnaji (all of which he played more than his average of nine minutes) I didn’t get that impression of passing or drives, those plays I just did not see from Nnaji — that doesn’t mean they didn’t happen over the season obviously, but I would have called his ability with the ball in his hands average, even sometimes getting his hand-offs a bit wrong. Understandable given his lack of experience as Givony outlines.
Nnaji’s processing speed and awareness on both ends of the floor are still a work in progress, but the fact that he can make the impact he does on both ends of the floor mostly off his tools gives him plenty of upside to grow into as the game slows down for him. With his minutes likely to be inconsistent for the remainder of the season and Barcelona’s schedule through the month of June likely preventing him from conducting private workouts with NBA teams, getting a firm handle on Nnaji’s draft stock won’t be easy, but he’s done well to solidify his candidacy as a first-round prospect with the opportunities he’s received thus far. — Jonathan Givony
To wrap up on Givony’s thoughts, I think the fact he does contribute on both ends despite his lack of playing time on a quality side like Barcelona does give you a solid indication as to why team’s might believe in him and why he’s projected in the first round.
CBS Sports doesn’t have Nnaji mocked in their top-30, nor does Kevin O’Connor of The Ringer, but does have Nnaji listed 35th on his big-board, with this to add:
Defensively alters everything around the basket. He can thrive as a drop defender, and his skills translate into help situations. He’s aware when defending off the ball and does a great job of timing blocks using either hand. It’s not uncommon for him to rocket off the floor for swats.
Plays as strong as he looks. He battles on the post and fights relentlessly for rebounds, whether he boxes out or repositions himself to follow the trajectory of the ball.
Good defender in space. He can slide his feet laterally to stick with guards coming off screens or handoffs. If he needs to switch, he’s more than capable.
Sets strong fundamental screens with a wide frame, making it hard for opponents to fight through. He rolls hard and can handle lobs.
Excellent interior finisher who can dunk through contact but also shows natural instincts, making himself available with relocations and basket cuts. He can put the ball on the floor once or twice to score. Or he’ll use pump fakes to draw defenders before elevating.
With his adequate straight-line handle and ability to make high-low passes, he could have untapped upside in dribble handoffs.
I do agree with O’Connor in that Nnaji does alter things around the rim, but ‘everything’ might be an exaggeration. He certainly makes offensive players think twice and that’s huge but he’s not swallowing everything. I’d also say that he’s much better suited in drop coverage because I don’t think he can live out on the perimeter with certainly NBA guards let alone some European guards who are able to get by when he’s on an island. He can have good moments on switches, but I would try to avoid it if possible depending on the situation.
Essentially everything else I think O’Connor is spot on when it comes to Nnaji and we’ve mostly looked at.
He hasn’t played heavy minutes for Barcelona since he’s a teenager playing in the EuroLeague and Spanish league.
Commits avoidable mistakes, whether it’s making off-target passes or being called for moving screens.
Hackable free throw shooter who shoots around 50 percent. He also hasn’t shown the touch to hit shots outside the paint.
The free throw shooting is quite a concern and if this is something that Nnaji is going to add to his game in the future a lot of work will be needed here.
Finally, Sam Vecenie of The Athletic mocks Nnaji at 29th overall to the Indiana Pacers, with this to add:
The Scout: Nnaji is a developmental big with prodigious tools. He is 6-11 with an enormous 7-5 wingspan and is one of the few players in this class outside of Wembanyama who will have plus size for the NBA center position. He’s an awesome vertical athlete who is an elite catch-and-finish player around the basket because of his catch radius and hands. Defensively, he’s pretty OK in drop coverage for a player who is still young in the game. And the tools for contesting around the basket are terrific. He hasn’t been wildly productive this season while playing on a loaded Barcelona team, but teams are intrigued by any big this big, this explosive and this coordinated.
Complete agreement when it comes to Nnaji’s ability to catch and finish, and ‘pretty OK’ I think is better description for his drop coverage defense than O’Connor’s assessment. Plus size and wingspan are going to help Nnaji when it comes to his selection.
Nnaji doesn’t seem to be rising in recent mocks as much as Bilal Coulibaly seems to have of late, but he certainly seems nailed on for a selection in the 20’s, so likely a playoff team that is going to have the means to assign him to the G League. If he fell outside the first round and you’re able to sign Nnaji on a two-way contract you’re laughing.
For the Atlanta Hawks at 15th overall, it would be a bit too high to select Nnaji if they wanted to go in this direction, but again it’s worth mentioning there is the possibility to trade back if they were particularly enamored.