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Commitment to greatness drives Maya Nnaji, Star Tribune Metro Player of the Year

By JIM PAULSEN, Star Tribune, 04/01/21, 4:45PM CDT


The 6-4 junior forward and leader of top-ranked Hopkins doesn't accept mediocrity from teammates and certainly not from herself.

“I have dreams and aspirations. I will change the world.” -- Maya Nnaji

Photos: Carlos Gonzalez * carlos.gonzalez@startribune.com

(Venue courtesy Minnehaha Academy)

Maya Nnaji is never just going to sit by quietly and not speak up. That is simply not the way the 6-4 junior forward, with arms that seem to stretch into next week, is wired.

Miss a shot? Nnaji will ask why. Fail to make the right pass? It’s not going to go unnoticed. Get sloppy on defense? Nnaji will do her best to make sure it doesn’t happen again.

But it’s not as if Hopkins’ leading scorer and rebounder is overstepping her bounds. Nnaji’s commitment to greatness, for herself and her teammates, drives her. It’s a big reason Hopkins — with or without the now-graduated Paige Bueckers — hasn’t lost a game since 2018. Why she’s considered the state’s No. 1 recruit in the Class of 2022.

And the 2021 Star Tribune Metro Player of the Year.

She’s not going to accept mediocrity. Not from her teammates. And certainly not from herself.

“With Paige gone, what we really missed was her leadership,” Nnaji said. “I think I’m a natural-born leader.”

Nnaji’s myriad physical skills qualify her to take on such a role. Her height and wingspan alone make her a formidable opponent. But through hours in the gym and guided by a father who never wanted his children to be limited by traditional roles, Nnaji is polished in ways most players her size aren’t.

She has unmatched moves around the basket, able to attack and snatch rebounds from smaller players without fouling. Her footwork is smooth and polished. When she finishes, she relies on the softest touch around the basket in the metro.

“If she gets the ball on the block, it’s a basket every time,” teammate Nunu Agara said.

She leads Class 4A, No. 1 Hopkins, the state most talented team, averaging 20.4 points per game.

She’s not limited to low-post skills. Adept at stepping outside the lane, Nnaji is a force when facing the basket, whether creating off the dribble or pulling up to hit a dependable mid-range jumper.

Maya Nnaji

“She has such a dynamic skill set,” Hopkins coach Tara Starks said. “She can do things I’ve never seen in a kid that size.”

The credit, Nnaji said, goes to her father, Apham, a native of Nigeria.

For Apham, his children were his priority and he never let them settle for simply being good at something. If they were going to do something, they would it well.

Nnaji’s 6-11 older brother Zeke was the 2019 boys’ Metro Player of the Year and led Hopkins to a Class 4A championship. He played one year at the University of Arizona before being drafted 22nd overall by the Denver Nuggets last November. Younger sister Josie, a 5-10 eighth-grade guard, is already receiving Division I basketball offers.

It’s not just about basketball. Maya, a trained singer, has sung the national anthem before Hopkins games on numerous occasions. Zeke is an accomplished pianist.

“My dad is an aggressive person and he always pushed us,” Nnaji said. “He never let us be satisfied.”

Despite the generous stature of his children, Apham demanded they learn the game from the outside in. They were going to develop ball skills and agility, learn to shoot the ball properly, become well-rounded players. If they weren’t doing something right, he would make sure they learned the proper fundamentals.

“I’m really grateful to my dad,” Nnaji said. “He showed us how to work hard and the importance of attention to detail. He put so much time into helping me and my siblings.”

Dad’s dedication to Maya’s development influences her wish that those around her refuse to settle for anything but their best. Starks welcomes Nnaji’s vocal style, recognizing the leadership that follows.

“I want people holding each other accountable and being a leader for their teammates,” Starks said. “If she gets mad and screams at someone, ultimately you know, and the players know, they all want the same things.”

Agara’s father also is a Nigerian native, a common bond that has led to a tight friendship between her and Nnaji. But being close doesn’t absolve her from Nnaji’s keen eye.

“Maya has no filters,” Agara said. “She’ll get on you for anything, but she can be really hilarious. It doesn’t hurt us. Everybody needs a little coaching once in awhile. It helps us out. We see that.”

For Nnaji, her take-charge attitude coincides with her life’s goals. Basketball is only a part of them.

She has narrowed her college choices to 13 high-level Division I programs, all outside Minnesota. They are Arizona, Stanford, Florida, UCLA, Georgia, Illinois, Louisville, Maryland, Michigan, South Carolina, Oregon, Vanderbilt and Virginia.

After that?

“I want to play in the WNBA and I want to win a WNBA championship,” she said, listing off her plans. “After that, I want to be a doctor. And I want to make a difference in Nigeria with Nnaji Family Foundation, which my dad started and builds basketball courts and tech schools in Lagos, Nigeria, where he grew up.

“I have dreams and aspirations. I will change the world.”

Nnaji scored against Wayzata in a game on Jan. 19. Photo: AARON LAVINSKY • aaron.lavinsky@startribune.com

Past Star Tribune Metro Players of the Year

2020: Paige Bueckers, Hopkins
2019: Bueckers, Hopkins
2018: Bueckers, Hopkins
2017: Gabi Haack, Elk River
2016: Taylor Koenen, Shakopee
2015: Madison Guebert, Eastview
2014: Chase Coley, Minneapolis Washburn
2013: Nia Coffey, Hopkins
2012: Marissa Janning, Watertown-Mayer
2011: Rachel Banham, Lakeville North
2010: Cassie Rochel, Lakeville North
          Banahm, Lakeville North
2009: Tayler Hill, Minneapolis South
2008: Hill, Minneapolis South
2007: Angel Robinson, St. Paul Central
2006: Jenna Smith, Bloomington Kennedy
2005: Ashley Ellis-Milan, St. Paul Central
2004: Leslie Knight, Hopkins
2003: Liz Podominick, Lakeville
          Jamie Broback, Eastview
2002: Podominick, Lakeville
2001: April Calhoun, Robbinsdale Armstrong
1999: Mauri Horton, Minneapolis North
1998: Tamara Moore, Minneapolis North
1997: Carolyn Moos, Blake
1996: Moos, Blake
1995: Sally Albers, Apple Valley
          Linda Shudlick, Apple Valley
1994: Kay Schmidt, Bloomington Kennedy
1993: Tracy Henderson, Minneapolis Henry
1992: Cheri Stafford, Blaine
1991: Shannon Loeblein, St. Paul Harding
1990: Loeblein, St. Paul Harding
1989: Stacy Carver, Buffalo
1988: Margaret Nowlin, Cretin-Derham Hall
1987: Mya Whitmore, Hill-Murray
1986: Jennifer Hall, Burnsville
1985: Janet Cobbs, Concordia Academy


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