Dayton’s Nwokeji puts emphasis on defense as he tries to work his way back into rotation

Combined ShapeCaption
Zimi Nwokeji interview: July 28, 2022

Third-year forward saw limited minutes last season but kept a positive attitude on the bench

One of the many memorable moments from The Basketball Tournament at UD Arena this summer took place in the Red Scare locker room, where past and present Dayton Flyers celebrated a victory together.

The thousands of UD fans in the stands didn’t get to witness it in person, though they saw the camaraderie behind the bench five times in seven days as the Dayton alumni team made a run to the semifinals. Fortunately, a camera was rolling and the official Red Scare Twitter account shared the 23-second clip, which captured UD’s starting point guard, Malachi Smith, dancing in the middle of all the former Flyers and current players. They clapped. They laughed. They slapped hands.

Zimi Nwokeji was in that room. He’s the player who bridges the gap between the historic 29-2 team of 2019-20 and the current roster, which hopes to take Dayton back to the NCAA tournament, an opportunity denied that team by the start of the pandemic in March 2020.

Nwokeji, a 6-foot-7 forward from Quincy, Fla., committed to Dayton in December 2019 during a post-graduate year at the SPIRE Institute. He left that school early to enroll at Dayton in January. He redshirted that semester but witnessed Dayton’s rise to No. 3 in the national polls from the bench.

“I just remember the energy was crazy,” Nwokeji said late last month in an interview in the Skuns Room at the Cronin Center. “Everything felt certain, if that makes sense. Every time there was a pick and roll with Obi and Jalen you knew he was going to hit a shooter or throw the ball to Obi and let him work in the post.”

Explore» KALEB WASHINGTON: Sophomore forward trusting the process and ready for his opportunity

Obi Toppin has spent the last two seasons in the NBA with the New York Knicks. Jalen Crutcher started his pro career last season in the NBA G League. The only player from that team who saw action that season and remains in college basketball is Dwayne Cohill, who redshirted the following season because of a knee injury and then transferred to Youngstown State, where he’s now a fifth-year senior.

With walk-ons Christian Wilson and Drew Swerlein graduating in the spring and forward Moulaye Sissoko transferring to North Texas, Nwokeji is the last player remaining from the 2019-20 roster. He also has one of the most interesting storylines on the team because he was a key player in the 2020-21 season but then barely played last season.

If fans had to guess the players most likely to transfer after the 2021-22 season, Nwokeji would have ranked high on the list. He knew people were looking at him and scratching their heads, wondering why he stayed after seeing his minutes fall from 19.9 per game to 4.6.

“I came into this year with the idea that I was going to try my best,” Nwokeji said, “and if it didn’t go in my favor, then I was going to try to make it so that as much as I can it’s not because of me and just give this year a shot. No matter what happens, whether I get on the court and contribute or not, I know I’m just going to keep bettering myself as a player and as a person.”

Combined ShapeCaption
Dayton's Zimi Nwokeji dribbles against Mustapha Amzil during a summer practice at the Cronin Center on Monday, Aug. 1, 2022, in Dayton. David Jablonski/Staff

Credit: David Jablonski

Dayton's Zimi Nwokeji dribbles against Mustapha Amzil during a summer practice at the Cronin Center on Monday, Aug. 1, 2022, in Dayton. David Jablonski/Staff

Credit: David Jablonski

Combined ShapeCaption
Dayton's Zimi Nwokeji dribbles against Mustapha Amzil during a summer practice at the Cronin Center on Monday, Aug. 1, 2022, in Dayton. David Jablonski/Staff

Credit: David Jablonski

Credit: David Jablonski

Nwokeji averaged 5.9 points and 2.4 rebounds in his first season. He scored 29 points in a double-overtime loss at Rhode Island. Last season, he scored a total of 15 points, averaging 0.9 points in 16 games.

Nwokeji started last season with a heel injury and a concussion. That set him back in the preseason and early in the season, but he said he was healthy by the time the team played in the ESPN Events Invitational in late November. At that point, he had lost ground to other players, and it was hard to make up that ground during the season with Dayton starting to find itself after a 1-3 start.

Nwokeji said the biggest reason he didn’t get back into the rotation was his defense. He said there were other reasons, but that was the biggest. He said he’s now taking the approach of playing defense like his life is on the line.

“I’ve really got to lock in,” he said.

Explore» OFFSEASON UPDATE: Grant pleased with team's progress

Throughout the season, Nwokeji remained a positive presence on the bench, often sitting next to freshman Kaleb Washington, the other player buried deep on the depth chart, and Richard Amaefule, who redshirted in his first season at Dayton after transferring from East Tennessee State.

“It was tough, but I love everybody on his team,” he said. “They’re all my guys. They’re all my brothers. I know if it was the other way around, I’d want them cheering for me.”

Asked about Nwokeji’s place on the team in February, Dayton coach Anthony Grant said, “He’s got some guys ahead of him that are pretty good players. It’s a combination (of things). One thing I’m really pleased with is he’s a great human being. He comes every day with a great attitude, great work ethic. Whatever you ask of him, he’s willing to do. Like anyone else, you want to play. The ability to sacrifice for your team, to understand the opportunities you have with this team and what this team is capable of, he’s done a terrific job of that. You never know when the opportunity is going to present itself.”

Nwokeji did get some chances late in the season. When Toumani Camara missed the La Salle game with an injury, Nwokeji played seven minutes. When Smith suffered an ankle injury just before halftime against Richmond in the semifinals of the Atlantic 10 Conference tournament, Nwokeji played three minutes in the second half. He played two minutes in the first round of the National Invitation Tournament against Toledo but not at all in the second round against Vanderbilt.

When he wasn’t playing, Nwokeji played whatever role the coaches needed him to play in practice with the scout team. He said if they needed him to be Taylor Funk, one of Saint Joseph’s top players, he would be Funk in practice.

Nwokeji has remained on campus since the season ended, not traveling home like most of his teammates, and he’ll remain at UD in August as well. Dayton closed its summer practice season Wednesday. He worked throughout the summer to prove he deserves playing time in the season ahead. He’s gotten stronger and better at anticipating where he needs to be on defense. He said he’s taking more pride in that side of the game.

“My emphasis has been on defense,” he said. “I’m just trying to be the best defensively I can be with whatever group they put me out there.”

Dayton finished 24-11 last season and returns five starters and seven of its top eight scorers, plus Nwokeji, Washington and Amaefule. The only newcomers among the 12 scholarship players are Georgia transfer Tyrone Baker and freshman Mike Sharavjamts.

Based on the early predictions from the national writers, Dayton should rank in the top 25 in the preseason poll.

“We’re super excited,” Nwokeji said. “We put a lot of work in this summer. We’re grinding our bodies and trying to get ready to put on a show for you all.”

Combined ShapeCaption
Dayton Flyers hold summer practice at Cronin Center on Aug. 1, 2022

About the Author