Redshirt sophomore Michael Nzei is prepared to be the intense, under-the-radar big man of 2016-17.
“I won’t say Mike is a big surprise, but the way Mike’s playing and what he could bring to us; you know Mike compliments Ish [Sanogo] and Angel [Delgado] really well on the inside,” head coach Kevin Willard said. “He gives us another opportunity to be aggressive on pick and rolls. He’s a guy who was playing 12 minutes a game, he’s going to be up in the 20 to 22 [minute] range just because all the things he can bring us.”
The 6-foot, 8-inch forward played a consistent role off the bench last season despite still very much learning the pace of the college game and the assignments in Willard’s system. Now entering his second season after missing his freshman campaign due to a hand injury, Nzei is ready for more.
“My goal after last season was to work on my game and myself to contribute more to the team,” Nzei said. “So through the summer I stayed back and worked with coach. I worked on my offense and worked on my defense. This has helped give me more confidence in my abilities. I think going into the season, I will have a lot of contributions to help my teammates and my coaches achieve our goal as a team.”
While bringing a different skill set to the table, Nzei provides an intensity similar to that of teammate Ismael Sanogo. The two forwards have gone against each other in practice throughout the preseason and are more than ready to take on new competition.
“[Nzei] is just a workhorse, I hate having to guard him in practice,” Sanogo said. “Like me, he’s definitely gotten better offensively. And he’s learned to score within the offense as well so he should also be a great impact.”
Nzei agreed that going against Sanogo only improves his game and approach.
“One thing about me and Ish is we play hard,” Nzei said. “So playing and going against Ish is like a battle. If he goes hard, I go hard. If both of us are in the game, I feel like it’s just going to be a lot of energy coming from both of us.”
The idea of playing both together is not just something being thrown around by Nzei; Willard revealed that he sees the two of them on the floor together. It would allow the Pirates to be creative on defense.
Expected to take on more minutes and a larger role, Nzei had to step up his conditioning over the summer. His coach said his strength has improved.
“You know last year, being a freshman coming off injury, my confidence in him and his confidence in himself wasn’t great,” Willard said. “This summer he hasn’t added that much weight, but he’s added some strength; he’s able now to sustain his energy.”
James Justice can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @MLSTakeover.