Nuggets’ Zeke Nnaji details trash talk to Luka Doncic: “I’m cooking you!”

When Luka Doncic engineered a switch in the second half of Denver’s rousing win in Dallas on Sunday, the Slovenian megastar got way more than he bargained for.

The Mavericks screened Nuggets rookie Christian Braun, so versatile forward Zeke Nnaji would be Doncic’s primary defender. Doncic drove and appeared to have a step on Nnaji, but the 6-foot-10 forward challenged from behind. When Nnaji swatted Doncic’s floater, he naturally celebrated the stop.

Doncic, a fierce competitor who was already emotionally charged, took the boast personally though Nnaji said that wasn’t his intention. That preempted this illuminating exchange, which Nnaji recounted from Tuesday’s shootaround before facing Detroit.

“’What? I’m cooking you,’” Nnaji said of Doncic. “He has his little accent. ‘I’m cooking you, I’m cooking you, you can’t stop me.’”

As the third quarter ended, Nnaji and Doncic kept barking at each other.

“I’m like, ‘What? You haven’t scored on me all game. You haven’t done anything,’” Nnaji said.

That encounter was indicative of a resilient Nuggets team that had far more fight than they did only two nights earlier, when they were also down starters Nikola Jokic, Jamal Murray and Aaron Gordon.

What Doncic didn’t anticipate, or didn’t know, was that Nnaji relishes those chances.

“I definitely enjoy guarding the best players,” Nnaji said. “My mindset is trying to lock them down and stop them.”

Over the last past games, Nnaji’s had his first substantive playing time due to Denver’s frontcourt absences.

Though Gordon returned from a non-COVID illness and said he intended to play Tuesday night vs. Detroit, the Nuggets also lost Jeff Green in Sunday’s win to a right knee contusion. He was listed as out for Tuesday’s game, meaning Nnaji will have at least one more night to make an impression. In assessing his play, Nnaji was proud of how he’d performed but knew he needed to hit the glass more and step out on offense from the 3-point line.

“You can practice all the drills you want,” he said, but nothing expedites development like game minutes.

When Denver’s been fully healthy, Nnaji’s been buried on the depth chart behind Gordon and Jokic and backups DeAndre Jordan and Green. A depleted frontcourt has also given Vlatko Cancar a chance to play.

“It’s definitely very frustrating because I feel like I’m capable of playing, but I’m not gonna let that stop me or change how I’m gonna approach every day,” Nnaji said.

Nnaji’s attitude appears to be one of someone who knows he’s ready to contribute but isn’t going to bemoan a situation that’s out of his control. But when given an opportunity, his confidence – and trash talk – speak for itself.

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