Freshman forward Zeke Nnaji is expected to play in Arizona’s season opener Wednesday against NAU, but sophomore guard Devonaire Doutrive likely will not while his indefinite suspension continues.
Both players missed Arizona’s exhibition game Friday against Chico State. UA coach Sean Miller said during his weekly news conference Monday that Nnaji returned to practice Sunday and, while Doutrive has been practicing, is not out of the doghouse yet.
“He’s practicing with us and doing every everything else other than participating in in game,” Miller said of Doutrive. “You know, a lot of great kids and young people can make bad decisions, and that does not mean that they're bad kids. College is a time where sometimes the best lessons are learned in a negative sense: You rebound from it, you learn from it, you grow, and you take a different approach.
“That's for all students that come to the University of Arizona, and our players are no different. Just like when they make really good decisions and do things the right way. They also learn the benefits of that. So we're working with Devonaire every day and looking forward to his return at some point.”
Meanwhile, Miller said Nnaji had enjoyed a great streak of health before tweaking his ankle last week.
“I don't know if Zeke missed a single day, other than a few days before the (Chico State) game,” Miller said. “His injury was not significant. … We fully expect him to play unless he would sustain a setback here today or tomorrow, but we're being smart with him.”
Nnaji had been arguably the Wildcats’ best post player in preseason practices and Miller said there was “no question” he would have started against Chico State if he wasn’t hurt. Still, Miller said he wasn’t sure if Nnaji would start Wednesday until he goes through more practices.
“He’s got to be able to string together a couple days; he has to feel completely comfortable,” Miller said. “I'm confident that he will but we're just not there yet.”
At the same time, junior Ira Lee made his case for a more significant role when he had 10 points and 14 rebounds against Chico State.
“He was very meaningful towards our win and also I thought he slowed down on offense and had a couple good shots,” Miller said of Lee. “He has the ability to run around and play hard and give great effort. That can work against you sometimes when you have the basketball in your hands.
“As an offensive player, it's about being that type of player but in decision making, knowing when to drive, when to shoot, slowing down. He did that he did that well the other day, but he's a junior now. We expect more from him. I know he expects more from himself.
"And I said this a year ago, Ira is one of our team's hardest workers. I think he's more mature has been through a lot of different things. And we're really, really counting on him.”
Miller said senior Dylan Smith “really turned it on” in practice last week, after which he won the gold jersey, adding to a competitive situation on the wing between Smith, Jemarl Baker, Josh Green, Doutrive and Max Hazzard.
Smith started at shooting guard against Chico State, although Miller referred to Doutrive as a would-be starter, and it would hardly be a surprise if Hazzard gets the nod on some occasions this season.
“We don't have an iron-clad five that everybody right now knows is going to start,” Miller said. “We have a couple guys that have certainly risen among the others but competition is big and doing it every day prepares you for the game. And Dylan is one of our team's best perimeter players. He's one of our most experienced players, and he did a really good job the other night playing heavy minutes and having zero turnovers.
“That's something we tried to talk to him about -- cutting down and eliminating negative plays… that's what experience starts to do for a player. You look at his overall game that you know he's more efficient and, but he did a good job in a lot of areas the other night and certainly had a good week of practice.”
Miller named Chase Jeter and Justin Coleman co-captains of a rebuilding team in dire need of direction last season, but says he is not naming captains this time around.
“I don't really believe in it,” Miller said. “College basketball is the best players’ game. Your best players are inherently your team's leaders, and sometimes that might be a sophomore. Derrick Williams was a sophomore (on Arizona's Elite Eight team of 2010-11). For me to say he wasn't the leader of his final team, why would I say that?
“Sometimes you can anoint somebody a captain, because of their experience, and you know what? Maybe they’re just not wired for it. So right now … I think our leadership is evolving, you know there's certain guys that do it every day, but I'd rather have them do it through performance. Telling everyone who the captain is before the year begins, right now I don't know if I could really tell you. Chase is one of our oldest players who was a captain last year and he's one of our team's leaders, no doubt about it, but he can't do it alone.”
Miller said he hopes to land “more than one” player in the fall signing period, even though Puff Johnson’s visit to North Carolina may have made the Tar Heels the leader for the Hillcrest forward.
UA has a commitment from Hillcrest guard Dalen Terry and is also right in the mix for Minnesota guard Kerwin Walton along with some other players who could commit after the fall signing date such as Adam Miller or Ziaire Williams, who visited UA last weekend.
“At the end of the day, whenever that time comes late in the spring, we’ll probably have four or five new faces, and they could come in different forms,” Miller said. “But we didn't really expect to have a big early signing class and I don't think that will be the case for us.”