'They're like family': Top-30 basketball target Zeke Nnaji holds Iowa Hawkeyes in high regard
LAS VEGAS — Iowa head coach Fran McCaffery sat on a baseline for Thursday’s game between D1Minnesota and Team Eleate. He was there for two people.
The first: his son, Patrick McCaffery, the Hawkeyes’ lone 2019 recruit.
The second? Zeke Nnaji, a four-star, 6-foot-10 stretch forward from just outside Minneapolis. Trayce Jackson-Davis and Keion Brooks are the most talked-about forwards on Iowa’s big board, but McCaffery would be thrilled to land Nnaji.
Iowa offered last October when Nnaji was a relatively unknown three-star kid. He’s blown up since, rocketing into the country’s top 30 and earning an invite to the U17 National Team Trials.
But the Hawkeyes remain among his top contenders.
"It’s definitely a place I could see myself going," Nnaji told the Register. "They’re like family to me, talking to me all the time. I just feel really comfortable around them and could really see myself growing as a man and as a basketball player."
Nnaji said Iowa, UCLA, Arizona, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Indiana and Baylor stand out the most right now in his recruitment. McCaffery’s early interest matters to him.
"It shows that they really believed in me and they saw potential in me," Nnaji said. "They showed that they really cared about me and they truly do think that I have what it takes."
Nnaji is good friends with Patrick McCaffery, and he said talks with Fran McCaffery and assistant coach Sherman Dillard are frequent.
Iowa is trying to sell Nnaji on becoming a blend of Tyler Cook and Luka Garza, and someone who would play right away as a freshman.
"(Fran McCaffery) really sees me as a stretch forward — someone that could put the ball on the floor, go post up, get rebounds and push it," Nnaji said. "Watching Tyler Cook, they said how they feed him a lot in the post and they think that I could do that — but also they say I’m like Luka (Garza), too, in how he stretches the floor."
Nnaji will soon trim his list and schedule visits. He said he’d like to visit Iowa City.
Nnaji also discussed his other top schools with the Register.
On UCLA: "They’ve always been a great program. Ever since John Wooden, they’ve been great. A lot of motion offenses are called 'UCLA.' They have a great history. They’re still very good and they still bring people to the NBA, like Lonzo (Ball) for example. I definitely think that I could see myself developing there, because they know what it takes to get to the next level."
On Arizona: "Arizona has been great. I mean, (look at most recent No. 1 NBA Draft pick) Deandre Ayton. They’ve also developed a lot of players that people haven't heard of — like two-, three-year players. They developed them into NBA players. They just know that it’s a process, and they know what the process is. They know what scouts are looking for to get you to the next level."
On Indiana: "It’s great. (Associate head coach) Tom Ostrom, we text a lot. He’s actually from Fairibault, Minnesota. I have an aunt that lives there, so that’s kind of cool, we talk about that. They have a great music school. I actually like to do music, so he was telling me a lot about that. They’re definitely also a good program with developing guys. I think they could help me do that.
"They would really like to use my talents. They think that I could be a stretch four, like a three or a four. They’d like me to put the ball down on the floor more and play off that wing, too. But also don’t go away from the post — use both."
On Baylor: "I have a supervisor at my school named Al Nuness. His son, Jared Nuness, is (on staff) over there. So Al is always telling me to go to Baylor. It’s a good school. All the coaches over there have been texting me and making me feel comfortable with them."
On Minnesota: "I have a lot of friends that committed there. Gabe (Kalscheur), Daniel (Oturu), Jarvis (Omersa). That’d be cool to be going there with them. If we get Matthew (Hurt) and me, too, the in-state talent going far into the tournament — that’d be special right there."
On Wisconsin: "They were the first to offer me. When they first offered me, they said I’m not there yet but they definitely thought I could get there. And now they’re saying that my hard work is going to pay off. I’m really comfortable with them — Joe Krabbenhoft, Greg Gard. They’re great guys, and I know a couple of guys there. Nate Reuvers, Brad Davison, Tyler Wahl who’s my (D1Minnesota) teammate, too."
Matthew Bain covers college football and basketball recruiting for the Des Moines Register. He also helps out with Iowa and Iowa State football and basketball coverage for HawkCentral and Cyclone Insider. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @MatthewBain_.