Is Nuggets’ Zeke Nnaji the answer to Denver’s ailing bench?

NEW YORK – Nuggets coach Michael Malone waffled and hedged before settling on a satisfying response.

Asked on Sunday afternoon whether he was still in “search mode” when it came to Denver’s bench unit, Malone was as honest as he could be with 10 games left in the regular season.

“I guess if I don’t know that means yes, right?” he said.

But the veteran coach knows far more than he initially conceded. On Sunday, Denver’s bench included Bruce Brown, Jeff Green and Christian Braun, and featured the return of Zeke Nnaji, who hadn’t played in six weeks due to a shoulder injury. It also, briefly, included Reggie Jackson, who was called upon once Braun got in quick foul trouble.

“That second unit (was) defensively, more athletic and versatile,” Malone said of Nnaji’s availability.

Despite Denver’s 108-102 win, its second unit got outscored 36-15.

The trade deadline additions of Thomas Bryant (DNP – coach’s decision) and Jackson have been largely ineffective, but Malone said he was compelled to give them an honest look off Denver’s bench. In 14 games, Bryant has been underwhelming, while Jackson, similarly, has been pressing.

Injuries to Vlatko Cancar and Nnaji only complicated matters. But acknowledging that time was running thin on the regular season, Malone said that that unit needed to establish an identity and he had a good sense of who would be a part of it. Not that he felt inclined to share anything else.

But Nnaji’s return on Sunday – four points, five rebounds in 12 minutes – could’ve been a significant step in solving that riddle.

Nnaji has always been a versatile, communicative defender, with good size. Whatever he’s able to do on the offensive end, be it screen-and-rolls, popping out and hitting 3-pointers, or crashing the glass, might be a bonus. Nnaji could be a galvanizing piece among that group, and a player more defensively capable than Bryant. For weeks, players have talked about how that unit’s identity needs to be, collectively, defend, rebound and run. Nnaji, if he can stay healthy, is an ideal fit.

In the visiting locker room at Barclays, Nnaji detailed a shoulder injury that seemed more serious than was previously known.

“My shoulder got dislodged, and it chipped some cartilage off,” he said. “And so the cartilage was sticking out, it wasn’t all the way chipped off. There was a part of it that was sticking out and in the joint. And so every time I moved it, it would click and cause a lot of pain. Luckily, with rehab, that went away.”

He said they’d considered a scope on his shoulder but opted for rehab. For weeks, Nnaji said he focused on lower-body lifting and rehab, and then gradually improved to contact drills. In order to stay engaged, he said he maintained the same routine of studying film and keeping his mind sharp on Denver’s opponents, even if he wasn’t available. Though still not 100% percent, Nnaji said he felt ready to contribute.

While he was out he said he saw a team that lacked urgency and physicality.

“We were playing kind of complacent,” he said.

Theoretically in the rotation, Nnaji intended to end that. If Bryant and Jackson deserved a fair look with that unit, Nnaji, who’s been productive when he can stay healthy, probably deserves one, too.

Following an extended stay in New York, the team headed to D.C. on Monday where they’ll practice before Wednesday’s game against the Wizards. Perhaps by that time, having watched film and conducted a rare road practice, Malone will be even more confident in who he can trust.

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