David Nwaba has 'put in the work' all throughout his career
"His skill is he goes out and plays harder than everybody else on the floor" - Coach Fred Hoiberg
How do the Bulls spell winning? N-W-A-B-A.
OK, not that often, we know, as the 5-20 Bulls—with consecutive wins for the first time this season—face the Eastern Conference leading Boston Celtics in the United Center Monday.
True, the Bulls are undefeated with the return this season of Nikola Mirotic, who was five of eight on three pointers in Saturday's victory over the New York Knicks. Mirotic joked—he insists he was serious—the intersection of success and attendance is Mirotic Way. Though Mirotic playing limited minutes in his return after the preseason fight had little impact in his season debut Friday in Charlotte.
But the road to victory this season for the Bulls, as rare as it has occurred, has been traveled most often with the unheralded Nwaba. Whose story, for good measure, also happens to be one of the more inspirational and fulfilling in the NBA today.
"I'm just glad to be a part of the team and get the playing time I've been getting," Nwaba said late Saturday night after scoring 15 points against the Knicks, 11 in the fourth quarter. "I just want to continue to work and do my best and not let anybody down and just go out there and play hard."
No one is getting confused. The future with this Bulls team thus far is being developed around Lauri Markkanen, Kris Dunn and Zach LaVine to come. They were the three players acquired in the Jimmy Butler trade. It leaves space open for lottery picks to come. Dunn and Markkanen working together have been impressive in the two straight wins. Dunn is averaging 18.5 points, 10.5 assists and 6.5 rebounds the past two games and Markkanen 19.5 points and 10 rebounds.
But looking back over these first 25 games, the greatest variance among the regulars in wins and losses has been the presence of Nwaba, whom Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg has credited for the speed, transition play and energy that has ignited the team's offense lately.
"His skill is he goes out and plays harder than everybody else on the floor," said Hoiberg.
Nwaba recently missed 12 games with a sprained ankle. The Bulls were 1-11 in that stretch. They're 4-9 when he plays. Not great, but not 5-20. Among the regulars, only Dunn, who recently became a starter, has a large differential in scoring between his play in wins versus losses, about six points. Nwaba averages 14.3 points in games the Bulls won and 5.1 points in games he's played in which they've lost.
In the games the Bulls have won, the most effective common denominator has been the play of Nwaba.
In the Bulls' first win Oct. 26 over Atlanta, Nwaba had 15 points and 11 rebounds of the bench in just 23 minutes. He parlayed that into a starting spot and averaged nine points and 6.7 rebounds in about 28 minutes per game. Suddenly, the summer waiver pickup from the Lakers was playing the most minutes on the team, which he did in the win over Orlando Nov. 3 with 16 points and seven of 12 shooting, mostly, primarily and seemingly, throwing himself at the basket.
Nwaba often appears the personification—or one of the few listening—of Hoiberg's message of speed, transition play and attacking the basket. His closing fourth quarter sprint against the Knicks with a baseline driving reverse, full court one-man fast break score and finish on a touchdown pass from Jerian Grant was the team's vision of, if not common, reality. Nwaba has averaged 13 points, 5.5 rebounds and 2.5 blocks the last two games in 31 minutes, shooting 11 of 16 basically at the basket.
When it came to training camp there was sometimes worry. I wasn't playing my best basketball, so it was important I stay positive and keep putting the work in believing everything would work out.
"I like coming off the bench to bring energy and knowing we need that to win games; I take pride in that," said Nwaba. "I don't have the most confidence in my shot. I do have the confidence to get to the basket and whether I can finish or kick out to my teammates, I know I can create a lot of plays. It does a lot for the team. I like finish and be aggressive as much as I can."
The next night back in Chicago after that Orlando win, Nwaba sustained a serious ankle injury, you knew, on a fast break drive to the basket. When he returned he'd lost his starting small forward job to Denzel Valentine. Hoiberg acknowledged Saturday he's considered returning Nwaba to start, but noted for now the team is scoring well to begin and that Nwaba's energy has been a boost. Plus, Nwaba is now finishing games, which Hoiberg always says is the most significant.
"The injury distracted me a little bit," admitted Nwaba. "But it's important to stay positive and do what it takes to get back to where I was, and knowing it's a long season and everything will fall into place."
Everything often doesn't, and it's difficult sometimes to understand how Nwaba could remain so confident and positive despite so many rejections. It seemed more like he had been handing out a blank business card.
"It's been a different journey I had to take," Nwaba said with a shrug.
He's a pleasant young man going on 25 next month, his demeanor belying his ceaseless motion.
"I don't know where my toughness comes from," said the native of upscale Santa Monica, Cal. "It's just on the court. Off the court I'm a calm, nice guy. But when it comes to being on the court, I bring a lot of energy and try to bring a lot of excitement."
Though perhaps more striking than his play is that he's gotten to show it in the NBA. There are always uplifting stories of kids overlooked and ignored who make it in the NBA. Nwaba is among the honors students in that class.
A relatively late comer to basketball as a high school freshman, his school near Brentwood doesn't resemble the grindingly desperate areas spread around Los Angeles. You know that learn toughness adage. So he was overlooked by the Division I schools, a 6-4 kid who didn't shoot well, a shooting guard without a shot, a small forward without the height. He went to Division II Hawaii Pacific. Guys from L.A. don't need the good weather. Deciding he needed more a greater challenge, he transferred back to Santa Monica Junior College. Then he got his Division I break if you could call it that, at Cal Poly-San Luis Obispo. Well, not quite UCLA.
"We finished seventh all three years I was there in the Big West; my stats weren't the best, probably averaged like 13 and 6 and finished honorable mention in the Big West," Nwaba related. Those things play a big role (in the draft). The shooting as well. I just tried to stay positive and I knew there were different ways to make it to where I wanted to be."
I had to — as they say — trust the process. So if you take anything away from my story, I hope it will be this: No journey is a straight line—every single one looks a little different. Trust yourself and go to work.
So how's this college vagabond and underachiever from a small school that didn't even win much going to be in the NBA? NBA scouts knew: He wasn't. Not even draft workout invites. So he went to some tryout camps for international teams. You have to be a sportswriter not to get one of those jobs. Even think of journalism, David?
"The plan was to go overseas," Nwaba said. "My stats weren't the best and I knew I wasn't getting an opportunity in the NBA knowing I didn't get any redraft workouts (or drafted in 2016). I didn't get the offers I would hope for over there, so I ended up going to the D-League (on a $150 tryout).
"Once my senior season ended I wasn't hearing from agents, I wasn't hearing from teams for pre draft workouts; I was a bit discouraged, especially when it came to getting (no) overseas offers. So it was a bit discouraging," Nwaba acknowledged. "The main thing is to remain positive and continue to put in the work knowing everything will work out and just have to trust the process."
Easy to say; more difficult to do. Harder even to believe.
Nwaba made it through his D-League tryout with Reno, was traded to the Lakers D-League, now known as the G-League, team and then got a pair of 10-day contracts with his home town team. Dream come true. Hey, mom, I'm dressing in the same room Kobe once did. But with the new Lakers management and the focus on their draft picks and trades, Nwaba was odd man out. The Lakers were hoping to sneak him through while they needed room to sign Kentavious Caldwell-Pope. Nwaba was an overlooked—big surprise—part of loaded Lakers summer league team with Lonzo Ball, Kyle Kuzma and Brandon Ingram that won the title. Bulls analytics manager Steve Weinman had been watching him and suggested a longer look. The Bulls because they didn't overload their roster with second round draft picks had a spot for his modest contract and answered the bell.
"I knew it was an opportunity here with the Bulls, a young team rebuilding as well as with the Lakers," said Nwaba. "I was still living my dream of playing in the NBA."
But the Bulls also had all these draft picks to try out with the Butler trade, and Nwaba didn't play much in preseason.
"When it came to training camp there was sometimes worry," Nwaba acknowledged. "I wasn't playing my best basketball, so it was important I stay positive and keep putting the work in believing everything would work out. The biggest thing to take from it was trusting the process and knowing everything would come into play. That was what I looked at in the D-League. I wasn't the highest scorer, but I knew it was important to bring the little things, to be a role player. I know teams are filled with the scorers. So basically what it comes down to is being a role player, doing something really good to make it. You have to wait for the opportunity and when it does come showcase it."
It's perhaps as much talent as belief as production. David Nwaba's path and attitude should be a model to so many who only find bridges out and roads washed away. There's another way. You have to keep looking.
Nwaba last September preparing for his next journey in Chicago without any assurances wrote a story for the Player's Tribune web site that concluded with a philosophy that has worked for him.
"I had the faith that it would work out, but I had to be patient," Nwaba wrote. "I had to — as they say — trust the process. So if you take anything away from my story, I hope it will be this: No journey is a straight line—every single one looks a little different. Trust yourself and go to work. If it's truly what you want, never let the dream die. You might just surprise yourself."
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