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Barça’s James Nnaji signs up for the 2023 NBA Draft

Nigerian center James Nnaji advances as one of the European basketball talents that will be presented to the NBA Draft. Juan Núñez misses out this year.

Nigerian center James Nnaji advances as one of the European basketball talents that will be presented to the NBA Draft. Juan Núñez misses out this year.
Enric FontcubertaEFE

This year’s NBA draft will feature a number of non-US players with options to climb up to the first round picks. In fact, the big favorite to be number one is French promise Victor Wembanyama, from the Metropolitans, who has already announced his presence in this 2023 selection. Another of those who has already sent the paperwork to appear on the lists is Nigerian center James Nnaji, who is on the books at Barcelona.

Standing 6 foot 10, James Ugochukwu Nnaji is Barça’s center after the club’s failed attempts with the formation of other emerging stars such as Atoumane Diagne or Ibou Badji. The Catalan club had high hopes for Nnaji in the coming years. In fact, they relatively recently renewed his contract - back in September; extending his deal until 2027 and tweaked the exit clause in case he wanted to try out in the NBA, to reaffirm that idea. The player, at 18 years old, has already decided that his steps should be directed towards the upcoming draft.

Barcelona had announced their intention to promote Nnaji to the first team for the 2023/24 season, but now his chances of being selected for the NBA have increased and he could leave before that happens. ESPN ranked him as the 24th best promise of this generation. In 22 ACB games, where he has had the most time to shine (12 minutes on average), he averaged 4.7 points and 2.9 rebounds. Sarunas Jasikevicius uses him as the fifth in contention after Vesely, Sanli, Tobey and Mirotic. He arrived in the Catalan city in the summer of 2020, at the age of 16, to play with the junior team after leaving Africa for the Ratgeber Basketball Academy in Hungary. They had discovered him through a Facebook video that was recorded with his mother on the campus created by Masai Ujiri, president of the Raptors.

Calendar issues

The challenge which Nnaji is facing now is to make an impression on the scouts and talent evaluators - both those who are on the move and those who are waiting for him in the United States. As has happened with the talents of Europe in other years, the calendar of the domestic leagues is what will make it difficult for the player to be able to do workouts or participate in the Draft Combine - and just try to make progress in their lives like most of the young American players who goes to the NBA Draft do. The player’s agents are working with the club to include facilities in the process even if Barça qualifies for the semi-finals and/or final of the Endesa League, which would extend their season beyond mid-June (and the event is on the 22nd).

Other European stars

Other players from European basketball have presented themselves for the draft in recent days. And they will be able to withdraw if they do not see themselves with enough options - one of the advantages that they have. Tristan Vukcevic, from Partizán and a former Real Madrid youth team player, will enter. As will the French trio: Nadir Hifi, Rayan Rupert and Bilal Coulibaly - one of Wembanyama’s team mates in Pro A; Ousmane N’Diaye, from the Baskonia subsidiary team... One player who will not be on the lists is Juan Núñez, who came through the youth ranks at Real Madrid and transferred to German outfit Ulm last summer. He will wait until the 2024 draft, when he aspires to be a pick.


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