19 February 2020
If you don’t follow college basketball in the United States, you may not have heard of Zeke Nnaji. But it is only a matter of time before he becomes a household name in the US, Nigeria and the rest of the world.
Born Ezekiel Tobechukwu Nnaji, 19 years ago, the freshman power forward out of the University of Arizona is taking college basketball by storm since he was admitted in June last year.
His devout Christian parents’ (Janel and Apham Nnaji) choice of names for their first child is now looking a touch prophetic. Ezekiel was a biblical prophet whose name means “God will strengthen” in Hebrew. And Zeke’s other name, Tobechukwu, means “Praise God” in his father’s native tongue, Igbo.
Proud dad, Apham, who grew up in Enugu, in Nigeria’s southeast, told Naijiant.com that his son, “first of all, has been tremendously blessed by The Most High”. Nnaji senior added: “However, his work ethic, which he inherited from his parents, has been one of the reasons he’s been this successful this quick.”
Zeke has become almost impossible to mark with his father acknowledging that: “he’s been seeing double teams and sometimes triple teams from High School to now. I told him it’s a compliment that coaches think they have no one to guard him one on one.”
Zeke has grown in strength and height from a skinny elementary school kid to a dominant force at Hopkins High School, Minnetonka, Minnesota. He is now a towering 6 feet 11 and half inches, weighing 249 pounds, with a wingspan of 7’2″. Added to those physical attributes is a 42 inch vertical jump, which is incredible for a player his size.
Nnaji is a finalist for the Karl Malone best power forward award this year. He leads all PAC-12 in double doubles at 12 this year. And has won the PAC-12 Freshman of the Week three times this year. The Pac-12 Conference is a collegiate athletic conference that operates in the Western United States, participating in 24 sports at the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) Division I level.
He has been Top Three all year in the United States Basketball Writers Association Freshmen of the Week. He will be the second all time in college history for rebounding and double doubles behind only Deandre Ayton who was number one overall pick in the NBA draft in 2018.
Nnaji comes form an athletic family. Although his dad’s playing interests as a youth did not go beyond football, Nnaji senior, who moved to the US in 1991, has a younger brother, Obi, that played under Oklahoma City Thunder head coach Billy Donovan at the University of Florida and is 6’10”. Zeke’s younger sister, Maya, is 6’4″ and is eighth in ESPN’s national rankings for high school girls basketball.
If Zeke decides to quit college early and head to the NBA, he is projected to be from a mid lottery pick to number 20 in this year’s draft. However, he comes from a family that places a huge emphasis on education. So they may want him to complete his degree at Arizona. Another decision awaits the Nnajis when he turns pro: Whether he should represent the US in international basketball or his father’s country of birth, Nigeria’s D’Tigers.