The defensive-minded David Nwaba has something to offer the Brooklyn Nets in the new Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant era.
David Nwaba has spent his career outside of the spotlight. He started in the G League, playing for the Los Angeles D-Fenders before landing a 10-day contract with the Los Angeles Lakers in 2017. The Lakers, Chicago Bulls and Cleveland Cavaliers teams he played for in his first three NBA seasons had a combined record of 72-174, and the Cavs team he was on was the worst defense in the league by over two points per 100 possessions.
Life out of the spotlight, though, is about to be over for the 26-year-old Nwaba. In signing a two-year deal (the second year being non-guaranteed) with the Brooklyn Nets, he’s going from a team in full rebuild mode to a team that just signed two of the best 15 players in the league. (Read in Jay-Z voice: “Brooklyn, we back on the map.”)
Granted, Kevin Durant’s Achilles injury means the Nets’ push toward the top is on hold for a year. Kyrie Irving, after last year in Boston, has some proving to do too. But as they figure it out, Nwaba fits.
Defensively, Nwaba should have a clear role. Based on Defensive Real Plus-Minus, he’s the second-best defender on the Nets roster who played more than 10 games last year, behind Garrett Temple.
Brooklyn has young players who might have more upside than Nwaba on that end — Rodions Kurucs and Caris LeVert at least have the size profile — but Nwaba is better right now. Stick his 6’4”, 219-pound frame on most players on the wing up through non-giant 4s and he can hang. He’s got the frame of a strong safety and he uses that to his advantage. Just watch how he defends a James Harden drive with no backup:
And then watch him on LeBron James, who tried to probe him with his frame:
Nwaba also really works on defense – something that helps him make up for not having the prototypical long wingspan most teams are looking for in a lead defender:
What works against Nwaba — and why he is making less than $2 million next year — is his offense game. For his career, he’s a 32.9 percent 3-point shooter on 0.9 attempts per game. Last season in Cleveland, he shot 32 percent on 1.5 attempts per game. It’s not hard to envision him on the floor in a playoff game being completely ignored while the opposing team has his defender shading help towards Irving next year, or Irving and Durant the year after.
There are workarounds for Nwaba, however. For one, he’s never played with players of Irving and Durant’s caliber; they should make life easier for him. The likes of LeVert, Spencer Dinwiddie and Joe Harris also mean he won’t be asked to be a deadeye shooter. He’s also about league average from the left corner and is really just starting to take 3-pointers. Maybe the Nets’ vaunted development program can get him to that next level.
Nwaba also has a few small wrinkles in his game that can create a random bucket. When he rebounds, he’s great at knowing when the defense isn’t set and when there’s a chance for him to push all the way to the other rim:
And while he’s only a 66.1 percent career free-throw shooter, he’s gotten to the line at a high rate for his entire career. He’s also a good cutter, around league average finishing at the rim and has the strength to finish off little cuts from the dunker spot even when a defender is there. It’s easy to see him filling in space off an Irving drive next season, getting an easy pass and finishing:
Is David Nwaba perfect? No, and ideally the Nets would find a way to get another good defender that defenses respect and can create space. At best, Nwaba projects as a fringe rotation piece in the playoffs. If he can’t make the open looks that will come, will Durant and Irving be able to provide enough scoring to make his contributions on defense worth it?
Still, for less than $2 million a year, with a team option for year two, he’s a great value signing and much-needed depth for the slog of the regular season. Like Temple, who also has a team option for 2020-21, he’s insurance for next summer when the supporting cast could get expensive.
Maybe, on a good team for the first time in his career, Nwaba will take his game up a level too.