EL SEGUNDO — Like most kids growing up in the Los Angeles area over the last two decades, David Nwaba was a fan of the Los Angeles Lakers. Especially Kobe Bryant. Watching those teams inspired Nwaba to be the first member of his household to seriously pick up a basketball, playing in scrimmages during lunch break and with friends, but he never considered that he was training for a future career.
“I was just focused on school,” Nwaba said. “It was always a hobby, but it was never really anything that I decided to go out of my way to join."
Nwaba didn’t have to go out of his way to find it. With the same genes that allowed his sister Barbara to compete in the heptathlon at the Olympics and standing 6’4 with a 6’11.5 wingspan, basketball found him.
It’s taken Nwaba to his childhood hero’s old stomping grounds in El Segundo, where he is impressing for the Los Angeles D-Fenders, even if it wasn’t as easy of a road to get there as his measurables might lead one to believe.
"He's a big sleeper,” said teammate Vander Blue. “He's a guy that came in and tried out and now he's a borderline starter. I love playing with him, he complements us perfectly. He plays hard, he does all the little things.”
The little things Nwaba does are exactly the types of skills that help role players make a big impact. The rookie wing is currently averaging 10.6 points, 5.9 rebounds, 1.2 steals and one block per game, but the counting stats don’t tell the whole story.
"David Nwaba is probably the best defender in our league, I think he's shown that over the last nine games,” said D-Fenders head coach Coby Karl. “Defensively he really puts up a stand against guys. He's just showing that he belongs."
While Bryant might have inspired Nwaba to play basketball, their offensive games don’t resemble one another at all. Bryant seldom met a shot he didn’t love during his time in Los Angeles, which is fine if you’re one of the greatest scorers of all time, but less so for a player trying to fill in the gaps for a team.
Nwaba understands this and takes it to the extreme. He has taken just two of his 60 shots outside of the paint so far this season, pickiness that’s allowed him to lead the D-Fenders in field-goal percentage at 65 percent (which ranks third in the D-League among players to appear in more than five games) while coming off the bench.
The selectiveness led to an easy nickname for him from D-Fenders’ play-by-play announcer Eric Rothman: Mr. Dunk.
“I would like to say that I put a lot of though into it, but it was more organic than anything else,” Rothman chuckles. “In the few games that I’ve seen David play, he’s thrown down some pretty monstrous dunks, so it seemed like a pretty fitting nickname.”
David "Mr.Dunk" Nwaba - we could get used to that. pic.twitter.com/9D8H7c5ktq— L.A. D-Fenders (@DFenders) November 21, 2016
#ImThankfulFor these insane @dnwaba0 highlights from last night's win pic.twitter.com/qm1rNzvRx7— L.A. D-Fenders (@DFenders) November 24, 2016
The path to professional basketball was one of the few shots Nwaba has taken that wasn’t a slam dunk. After redshirting at Hawaii Pacific following his high school graduation, Nwaba transferred to Santa Monica Junior College out of a desire to be closer to home.
Nwaba averaged 20.5 points, 8.8 rebounds and 2.5 assists per game during his one year with the Corsairs and was named to the Western State Conference South Division Player of the Year. He then transferred to Cal Poly, where he played three seasons.
Nwaba’s first campaign with the Mustangs went smoothly, but the second one made the pro ranks seem a long way off.
"I had surgery on my wrist, two torn ligaments. I had a concussion and an irregular heartbeat, which the majority of athletes I'm pretty sure have. I was out for a good amount of games,” Nwaba said, and the issues were so plentiful he forgot to mention the mononucleosis diagnosis that sidelined him for additional time during that snake-bitten season.
"There was a lot going on for sure,” Nwaba recalls. “It was a tough time, but I was able to get through it."
He bounced back during his senior season to average 12.3 points, 6.3 rebounds, 3.5 assists, and 1.2 steals before graduating with a degree in Sociology, but Nwaba would be forced to participate in various workouts throughout the summer as he continued his pursuit of his pro basketball dream.
He caught the eye of D-Fenders general manager Nick Mazzella at a local workout in Los Angeles, but the Reno Bighorns were awarded Nwaba’s rights as a tryout player, necessitating a draft day trade of Jamal Branch and Anthony January to Reno in exchange for Nwaba, Kourtlin Jackson, and the returning player rights to David Wear (the latter two are no longer on the D-Fenders’ roster).
Nwaba was driving up to Reno from Los Angeles when he received a call from Mazzella: The D-Fenders had acquired his rights. He would need to turn around.
"I think when I called he was surprised," Mazzella laughs. "But that's the nature of the D-League, you're going to get surprised sometimes."
Nwaba drove six hours back to Los Angeles to participate in practice with no guarantee he would make the D-Fenders’ final roster as the shock wore off.
“We had a lot of talent and some very tough decisions to make, but he showed a ton of energy and he's super athletic,” Mazzella said. “He uses that wingspan to his advantage, he gets his hands in passing lanes, he creates deflections, he's blocking shots, and he can guard and play multiple positions. He's really a guy that really stood out in training camp and eight games in he's been great. He's only a rookie and he’s a guy that can really develop into a call-up candidate by the end of the season."
To do so, Nwaba will have to address the main deficiency in his game: three-point shooting.
“I've got to keep working on my shot and just building confidence because I think confidence is basically the most important thing,” Nwaba said. “I'm a bit hesitant in things that I do on the court.”
He’s taken and missed just one triple this season with the D-Fenders, and didn’t shoot more than 14 in any season of his college career, but team officials say Nwaba’s shot looks good in practice. His stroke doesn’t look broken in warm-ups, so what is he afraid of?
"I guess failure, or just missing certain shots, or letting teammates down, or just the little things that have me overthinking for no reason, or just not believing in myself and what I'm capable of doing,” Nwaba said. “I feel like there is no reason to be hesitant about these things because I put in so much time and effort into improving my game, and I should be able to go out there and just showcase it. It's just the little things."
While he works on those little things, Nwaba is still living the dream. He’ll be right under the Lakers’ noses, in the same practice gym where Bryant and so many other players he watched growing up worked on their craft.
"It's pretty crazy, like you're right here in the Lakers organization. You got Lakers players playing in the same gym as you,” Nwaba said. “It's crazy to know that I'm right there, that close to the ultimate goal of playing at the next level.
"I always thought about [playing for the Lakers],” Nwaba continues. “I know it takes a lot of hard work to make it to that level but I'm just going to continue to keep working hard and see what happens.”
All quotes obtained firsthand. All stats per stats.nbadleague.com. Harrison Faigen is co-host of the Locked on Lakers podcast (subscribe here), and you can follow him on Twitter at @hmfaigen.