My favorite David Nwaba moment in Thursday’s 91-86 Bulls win over the Atlanta Hawks was the worst play of the Bulls first victory of the season.
Denzel Valentine had picked up a Taurean Prince turnover and looked ahead to start a fast break with the Bulls leading by seven with about 10 minutes left. He saw Nwaba running the right wing and threw ahead. Nwaba caught and ball and drove the right side of the lane and then, inexplicably, tried a behind the back pass into the lane to Cristiano Felicio. Turnover, of course.
Nwaba later was deeply remorseful when asked about it, the mood lighter in the locker room with the win. “I wish I had it back,” Nwaba repeated several times without much humor.
But more than what he said is what he did in the game.
The 24-year-old waiver pickup last summer got along the baseline right afterward, took a pass from Quincy Pondexter and exploded up for a layup, one of a rare 46 inside points for the Bulls. Then Nwaba power blocked a Prince layup attempt that led to a Valentine three for a 75-67 Bulls lead with 7:38 left.
The Bulls would lose that lead before being saved by rookie Lauri Markkanen’s three pointer with 49 seconds left.
But the victory was achieved in no small part also thanks to the 15 points and 11 rebounds for Nwaba off the bench in 23 minutes.
“David gave us a huge lift in that first half when we were struggling to score,” said Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg. “David is one of the guys that can get downhill on this team. He can make plays. He’s an underrated passer, very physical defender. He gave us a lot. Lauri made the big one at the end, but you could argue David was the player of the game.”
That turnover, comeback and produce sequence also is something of a metaphor for Nwaba’s most unlikely basketball career. Here was a kid basically ignored, a somewhat undersized forward, quick and powerful at 6-4 without the great shooting touch who spent some of his college years playing Division II and junior college and then paid $150 for a G-league tryout.
He knows about being ignored and dismissed, and then coming back to surprise and produce.
“Everyone’s journey is different,” Nwaba said late after Thursday’s game, the last one out of the Bulls locker room after a workout. “My journey is unusual. I believe anything is possible if you put your mind to it; keeping people’s dreams alive. It keeps me going, knowing to never settle and keep pursuing your dreams. You never know what can happen. So it’s important to remain ready and the opportunity will come. Stay patient and keep working and know everything will all work out.
“I’m away from home,” said the Los Angeles native who got his first NBA chance with the Lakers last season after two 10-day contracts. “I look at it as everything happens for a reason; my coming to the Bulls is another opportunity for me to grow.”
There are a lot of inspiring stories around the Bulls, which also is what a team gets when it is trying to find its way forward. It has to take chances and perhaps there’s a diamond under all that dust.
Perhaps that’s Nwaba, who got to his third college, Cal Poly-San Luis Obispo, which was the big time for him. And then he made conference honorable mention. Hey, who doesn’t? The offers in Europe were so meager he said he could have driven a taxi for more. So he paid for a shot at the G-league, made it, got traded to the Lakers’ entry and with his hustle, aggressive play and leaping ability got a look in The Show.
Look, mom, I’m in the NBA!
But the Lakers had bigger things in mind and plenty of rookies to add, so Nwaba got lost again and found by the Bulls. And he could be a nice find.
“David is a very athletic, strong guard who does the little things. But at the same time he makes a big impact in the game for us,” said Justin Holiday, one of the Bulls senior spokesmen. “(Thursday) he did a great job for us, got to the basket, rebounded, played defense very well and that’s what he’s going to have to do for us to help us win; that’s what he’s been doing all year. David is probably one of the best shot contesters I’ve ever played against and I’m being completely honest. He’s so athletic and quick to spots; it’s hard to shoot shots over him.”
The Bulls are moving, finally, to a more athletic style of play and player. Nwaba, even if he isn’t the prototype perimeter shooter, is fiery, aggressive and quick to the basket. This training wheels Bulls team is going to be overmatched by talent in most games. It can be made up with effort, and Nwaba provides an example. He scored Thursday on fast breaks, put backs and second chances. He even made his only three.
He obviously got a chance with Paul Zipser out with knee soreness. Zipser likely will miss Saturday’s game. Denzel Valentine started for Zipser Thursday. Nwaba can play that forward position with his aggressiveness and leaping ability. Kris Dunn also remains uncertain against Oklahoma City with some soreness with his injured finger.
Nwaba had played just 44 minutes in the first three Bulls games with a total of four shots. His experience is about opportunity and making the most of it, and that’s a lot what this season is about for the Bulls.
“I just had to stay ready, come out aggressive, grab rebounds and push in transition,” said Nwaba. “I knew the opportunity would be there, but we also are short a lot of guys. So it’s important for all of us to remain ready. It’s important for me to take advantage of every opportunity I get and come out ready (with) a lot of energy, attacking the basket and looking for my teammates. We have a lot of shooters, so it’s important someone attacks the basket and the defense collapses and kick to those shooters. The majority of guys in my position usually are shooters. I just try to help the team as much as possible, rebounding, driving to the basket. I’m trying to do the little things to help the team out. It’s always important for every team to have a guy doing the little things on the court.
“I’m quiet off the court and on the court I’m ready,” Nwaba says. “Hungry and coming out with a lot of energy. I’ve still got a lot of work to do. I have to continue to prove myself, keep working. There’s never a point you should settle for where you are.”
David Nwaba never has despite the setbacks and doubts of many. Because it’s also about getting past those detours. It’s the kind of attitude that the Bulls hope will define group.