Nuggets’ Zeke Nnaji ready to bring energy to void Jeff Green left


Nuggets forward Zeke Nnaji only had to look at assistant coach Ryan Bowen’s mangled fingers to know he didn’t want his digits to take on the same shape.

“I don’t want them to be like that,” he joked ahead of Sunday night’s Christmas thriller against Phoenix.

When Nnaji looked down at his left hand and saw his pinkie ajar during Friday’s win over the Blazers, he headed straight to the Nuggets’ head trainer, Dan Shimensky, and asked him to pull it back in place. Finally given a chance to make a difference off the bench, Nnaji didn’t want to leave the game.

Shimensky acted swiftly, ensuring Nnaji didn’t have to.

An hour or so before the Nuggets prepared to take on Phoenix, Nnaji sat at his locker room stall and examined his taped finger.

“It’s loose,” he said, admitting it didn’t have much strength and wiggled uncomfortably in its bandage.

But when needed, Nnaji was available.

The Nuggets found out reserve forward Jeff Green sustained a fractured hand against Portland and would be re-evaluated in four weeks. Considering the news, and Nnaji’s recent string of rotation minutes, the opportunity for the third-year forward was obvious. He was the lone reserve forward who played Sunday night amid a second unit that’s struggled to find an identity.

Playing a “small-ball” five, Nnaji was featured off the bench alongside Michael Porter Jr., Bruce Brown, Jamal Murray and Bones Hyland. That unit was outscored 8-0 to start the second quarter before Nuggets coach Michael Malone called a timeout. Despite losing in overtime, Phoenix’s bench scored 58 points; Denver’s tallied 11. It was fair to say little was solved as the Nuggets flew to Sacramento for a two-game road set beginning Tuesday night.

When asked specifically about Green’s injury, Nnaji didn’t frame his answer in an individual sense.

“I think everyone’s gotta step up more,” he said.

But in his stead, Nnaji vowed to do the “dirty work.” On a second unit that’s been more inconsistent than Denver’s weather, Nnaji’s responsibilities, according to Malone, were simple: run the floor hard in transition, set stout screens, force deflections, hammer the glass, switch onto quicker defenders, and play, generally, with high energy.

“I just want to feel Zeke’s energy out there,” Malone said.

Against the Blazers, Nnaji wasn’t out of his element when trying to contain guard Anfernee Simons. He did it, again, against the Suns when wily point guard Chris Paul engineered a switch, only to realize Nnaji was quick enough to stick with him and force him off the ball.

It’s his versatility, defensively, that makes him such an asset.

Asked what type of homework he does prior to games, Nnaji said he prepares as if he’ll be switched onto any position.


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