James Ugochukwu Nnaji Scouting Report

FC Barcelona | 08/14/2004 | 6’10” 225lbs | Center

Background 

Nnaji is originally from Nigeria and lived there till he was 14 years old. Then he moved to Hungary and played in Rátgéber Academy thanks to a scholarship. Barcelona signed him from that Hungarian academy 2 years ago.

He comes from a humble background, so from a young age he developed solid principles and is focused on giving his family a better future. 

Nnaji lives in La Masia (Barcelona Academy for young prospects of all sports) focused on basketball and academic progress. When he is with the first team, James is always with Brandon Davies, who is a friend and tutor for Nnaji.

Watching James’s almost NBA ready body at his 17 years old may lead you to know he is a great worker but, fairly, Nnaji is more than that. He practices all aspectsof his game tirelessly, works hard on the court, on the weight room and also with video analysis to learn more about basketball’s tactical side.

He is a very humble guy but very competitive and doesn’t hesitate to put pressure on other prospects if they’re not working at a maximum level. Sources always pointed out that, starting the season, he reached optimal condition very quickly because of his natural physicality. He likes to work hard, accepts the extra work and tends to ask for more. So, Nnaji is the perfect guy to coach and this explains why a coach like Jasikevicius is giving him big minutes at this stage.

Offense 

James Nnaji is a very productive player due to his impressive physical tools. He fits perfectly as the roll man and in the dunker spot, where his tremendous verticality and quickness off his feet make him a constant lob threat. Nnaji is strong enough to show a consistent touch and solid finishing in the paint at a young age. He also has natural mobility and coordination but he must emphasize the development of his footwork to expand his moves in the post and take advantage of his good feeling for contact. Among his physical tools, he shows a great court speed, being a quick rim runner with a high motor that would aloow him to fit in the American basketball perfectly. 

Another of his offensive strengths is his effectiveness as a screener. His solid base and powerful frame make him a stoned wall, leading to open shots for teammates or screen-assists for others’ drives. At times, he shows excessive hustle to put the screens on. but that is normal for a 17 year-old and, to be fair, he is improving his IQ very quickly. Not seeing him lost in the systems as we saw in the first years is a clear improvement.

Shooting is one of his major areas for improvement for sure. This isn’t thinking of having a mid-deep range game in the short term but first being a more consistent FT shooter at the next level, specially since he is projected to get a lot of calls. His ball-hip balance isn’t the best, leading to some unnecessary moves in the upper body, hard touch and rare touch at times. To be fair, FT shooting is another aspect of his game where we can watch the results of his work. In my opinion, it would be very useful for him to add a floater game as Kings’ big Richaun Holmes did, in order to maximize his role as a roll man and transitory distributor.

Defense

Nnaji is an athletic rim protector archetype player with great mobility and tenacity, enough to be able to anchor a defense in the future. James plays hard and shows fantastic attitude for coverage and help. His tremendous overall physicality lets him have a switchable condition and not struggle in the perimeter. Always low positioned with arms extended and high hands activity, he gets many deflections so he is a pesky PnR defender. Great rebounder on both ends and very productive shot blocker, shows a nice ability to avoid calls going quick off his feet with arms extended and impressive chest resistance. James has a tireless motor, is a fast rim runner and always ready for the second effort. One of his defensive areas for improvement should be his effort efficiency because, at times, he goes too far away playing push defense, leading to late recoveries to his man in the pick and roll, as we saw against Ismael Bako and Yankuba Sima when Barcelona played Baxi Manresa. Fortunately he was able to recover and get some impressive blocks, but surely this wouldn’t be so frequent in the NBA.

Personal view

I know that shooting and versatility are two of modern basketball’s main mantras, but in terms of prospects I still prefer players with a high level of unique skills than others with medium level of full skillet. Nnaji doesn’t have the outside shooting, doesn’t show playmaking abilities yet and passing is one of his areas for improvement. But James Nnaji has been very productive in past years, was very productive in the last Adidas Next Generationand in his ACB debut with Barcelona recently and he would be very productive in the next level. To his unique and impressive physical tools, he adds a consistent overall improvement due to his tireless way of work. His mindset is perfect and focused, very coachable, humble and always ready to learn and work hard. Many could watch him as a baby Dwight or Jalen Duran type of player, but in my view his rising IQ can help him to develop into a player more similar to Heat’s big Bam Adebayo. Smart and tough players who can anchor a team’s defense and be also good creators or distributors from the frontcourt. I consider Nnaji as a sure first round pick in his draft and a lottery if he reaches a consistent amount of minutes with Sarunas Jasikevicius’s team.

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