Utah and Arizona already share a geographic border in the Four Corners area. And based on Monday morning’s batch of Zoom calls with NBA draft prospects, it seems there’s a decent chance the two states could soon be sharing a basketball player, too.
Of the seven prospects who did the video chats with media on Monday, six are projected to be within range of the Utah Jazz’s selection at No. 23. And three of those were Arizona Wildcats (wing Josh Green, guard Nico Mannion, and big Zeke Nnaji) — all of whom said they have had both in-person workouts and Zoom interviews with the organization.
Among the other players to speak out Monday, Washington teammates Jaden McDaniels and Isaiah Stewart both acknowledged doing Zoom interviews with the Jazz, and the former said he had not worked out for the team while the latter declined to specify his workout locations; Duke center Vernon Carey declined to answer whether he’d had contact with the organization; and Memphis center James Wiseman … is a lottery pick likely going to either Golden State at No. 2 or Charlotte at No. 3.
The trio of Wildcats all made compelling cases for their potential fit in Utah, as they accounted for 30% of the 10 in-person workouts the Jazz are allotted.
Nnaji was the first of the Arizona players to speak out, and he wasn’t lacking for confidence. Asked what his immediate goals for the NBA are, he replied — non-ironically — "My expectation is to win Rookie of the Year.
“People have always been underestimating me,” he added. “I have a chip on my shoulder, and I’m eager to prove people wrong.”
He said that even though he recently switched to a vegan diet to help him boost his energy levels, he’s still managed to put on 20 pounds of muscle (he’s now up to 248) and maintain a body-fat composition of 5.9%. He feels like he can play both the 4 and 5 positions, but that he can guard even more, saying he expects to surprise many with his improved lateral quickness and foot speed, and thus his ability to switch onto perimeter players. He also believes he’ll be a legitimately consistent 3-point shooter, too.
“All the teams that have seen me have all been more impressed by the time they leave,” Nnaji said.
Green, however, has been the Wildcat perhaps most associated with the Jazz, though, owing to his profile as a 3-and-D wing with incredible athleticism, a long frame coupled with the ability to defend smaller, quicker guards, and a workable 3-point shot.
Speaking to the media on his 20th birthday, he revealed that he worked out for the Jazz last week, and spent some time picking the brain of fellow Australian Joe Ingles to get a feel for the organization. After having dinner with the front-office brass, he came away impressed with their “very structured system — both on the court and off.”
After having shoulder surgery in both 2018 and ’19, he said he’s relished having these extra months to be able to work on his game. Foremost on his agenda: “Working on the smaller parts of my shot — keeping the technique the same, improving my footwork, getting it up quicker.” He’s also been solidifying his handle, and doing a bunch of film study to improve his offensive reads and become a better playmaker for others.
As for Mannion, the son of former University of Utah star and ex-Utah Jazz player Pace Mannion acknowledged that coming to a Jazz team that has its starting backcourt absolutely established would necessitate adjusting to a smaller role from the outset, which wouldn’t necessarily be the worst thing.
“Utah’s a great fit. Having [Mike] Conley and Donovan Mitchell, I could come in and really learn from those two guys,” Mannion said. “And then I could maybe fight for some minutes.”
Though primarily a point guard, he said that he’s comfortable playing off the ball and believes he’s very good at moving without it. He knows that his inconsistent shooting is the main reason he’s gone from a consensus five-star recruit to a late-first/early-second round prospect — “Where I’m slotted, I feel like I’m better than that, but I get it, I understand it” — and said he’s been working on getting more consistent there. He also felt he was too slight, and added 12 pounds of muscle to get up to 190.
In the meantime, though, he said he’s got attributes that will translate from the outset and make him an attractive player to add.
“I play pretty unselfish, I make the right plays. I think players would like to play with me,” Mannion said. “I’m gonna try to make life easier for other guys.”
The Washington Huskies teammates, McDaniels and Stewart, also made intriguing arguments to the Jazz’s pick at No. 23.
McDaniels, like Mannion, is a former top recruit who underwhelmed a bit during his lone college season, offering up inconsistent production. While the shooting, playmaking, and defensive versatility he offers as a near-7-foot wing all have their appeal, his inability to harness those talents with the Huskies have dropped his stock a bit.
He admitted to having “some inconsistencies” at Washington and acknowledged he might be a bit of a project in the NBA. That said, he feels like the Jazz — and their G League affiliate, the Salt Lake City Stars — would actually be beneficial to him.
“I feel like just using their player development to help me build my game — on and off the court, as well — and also just using like the G League to help me get better, help me get live reps in between [NBA] games,” McDaniels said. “And then just looking up to their guys like Rudy Gobert and Donovan Mitchell, just trying to pick their brains and build off them, 'cause those are guys that have been in the G League and things, and came to [have] a star mentality. So just trying to come in and just be a sponge, really.”
While he said his biggest areas to improve are widening his ultra-thin frame and getting more consistent from NBA 3-point range, he added that he feels like he can surprise people with his ability to create shots for teammates and to defend smaller guards.
His old Huskies teammate, Stewart, who grew up idolizing Patrick Ewing and mostly has played like a vintage, paint-bound NBA big man to this point in his career, also figures he can shock a few people with some new skills.
“My shooting is gonna surprise a lot of people,” Stewart said.
Unlike McDaniels, though, he expects that with his “winning attributes” (rebounding, playing hard, bringing a motor, running the court) he will be able to “come in right away and be able to impact a team. Make a difference from Day 1.”