EL SEGUNDO — New NBA contract in hand, coming off scoring a career-high 19 points in the Los Angeles Lakers’ loss to the LA Clippers, David Nwaba had plenty of ways he could’ve spent a Saturday night in Southern California.
The option he chose was to come cheer on his Los Angeles D-Fenders teammates as they scratched their way to a 109-108 overtime victory over the Salt Lake City Stars in their final home game of the regular season.
With Nwaba and the Lakers set for an afternoon tip-off Sunday on the second game of a back-to-back, the former D-League tryout player could only offer his former teammates moral support, but soon enough he’ll be able to offer more than that.
Lakers head coach Luke Walton said he plans to send Nwaba back down to the D-Fenders for their playoff run, which they begin as the second seed in the Western Conference when they take on the third-seeded Rio Grande Valley Vipers Thursday, April 6.
Nwaba’s return is good news for a D-Fenders’ team that’s been significantly better with him on the floor than off of it. Los Angeles has outscored opponents by 10.1 points per 100 possessions with Nwaba playing, while being outscored by 4.4 per 100 possessions without him.
"Obviously he's a great player,” D-Fenders forward Travis Wear told Silver Screen and Roll. “He's a great slasher, great rebounder, and when you put him in the mix it just takes our team up to another level."
A year after falling in the D-League Finals, the D-Fenders hope the level Nwaba takes them to is a title-contending one. However, the move doesn’t come without a few small costs.
"There's pluses and minuses,” D-Fenders head coach Coby Karl told Silver Screen and Roll. “Obviously we love David and he's been a huge part of what we've done this season and it's been fun to watch his success with the Lakers, but he's also going to be taking opportunities from guys who have earned some opportunities.”
In the D-League, where everyone is trying to get called-up or show they deserve a Summer League look from NBA teams, the loss of minutes might be painful. It’s done with a larger goal in mind, though, and potentially worth the trade off for the D-Fenders as they enter the crucible of the postseason.
“I think in the playoffs, in a three-game series, it'll be very exciting to have a guy with that intensity on the floor," Karl said.
Another familiar face ready for another D-Fenders’ playoff run
Nwaba isn’t the only addition the D-Fenders made as they attempt to return to the D-League Finals. The team also reacquired the most prolific three-point shooter in D-League history, Andre Ingram, to fortify their bench and space the floor.
Despite starting for the D-Fenders on their run to the finals last season, Ingram has been fine coming off of the bench. In his ninth D-League campaign, the 31-year old guard is just happy for the opportunity to be back.
"Coming in late, I didn't want to break the flow or chemistry of the team because they were playing so well,” Ingram told Silver Screen and Roll. “I just want to get in and make the transition as smooth as possible."
He’s not only been able to avoid disrupting the D-Fenders, Ingram has added to an already prolific offensive attack.
Since returning to Los Angeles, Ingram has continued to pad his lead as the man with the most made three-pointers in the history of the league (610 and counting), canning a scorching 52.9 percent (37-70) of his triples in 10 games so far.
The D-Fenders have also been 17 points per 100 possessions better when Ingram plays (net rating of 5.6) than when he sits (-11.4).
Ingram had briefly signed in Australia before returning stateside, and while he wasn’t playing professionally during the time between his brief overseas stint and his D-Fenders reunion, he says he was still staying ready for a potential return.
Ingram said he spent his makeshift “offseason” working out with the goal of replicating whatever he would’ve been doing with the D-Fenders that day, whether that was lifting weights or spending a few hours shooting.
More so than any shooting ability, those intangibles are what his new head coach values most.
"His mentality. His professionalism. His character that he carries himself with have been huge for us,” Karl said. “There's just a certain way some people carry themselves that help their team, and he's one of those guys."
Being one of the guys is all Ingram wants to be.
"All I'm trying to bring is a cog in the wheel,” Ingram said. “Because they had something good going before I got here, and my job is just to keep that going."
Do D-Fenders have an extra gear?
As they get set for the postseason, the central question surrounding the D-Fenders is whether or not their two new cogs can propel them to another gear.
After holding on to the top seed in the Western Conference for most of the season, the D-Fenders ultimately ended the ‘16-17 campaign with the second seed in the Western Conference, but they believe they can take their play to another level in the playoffs.
"I think we have a gear that I think we were playing at consistently mid-season that we need to find again, and take it into the playoffs,” Wear said after tying his second-highest scoring night of the season with 23 points in the team’s final regular season game.
The D-Fenders certainly have reasons for faith. The team boasted the second-best offensive efficiency in the D-League, scoring 111.1 points per 100 possessions, and put their name down in the franchise history books in a few places as well:
NOTABLES:— L.A. D-Fenders (@DFenders) April 2, 2017
• LA's 34-16 record is the 2nd-best mark in team history
• Team record 18-7 on road
• #DFenders won 1st Pacific Division title
However, they’ve also faced a few issues. The D-Fenders allowed 108.5 points per 100 possessions (fourth-worst defense in the D-League) as opponents shot 37.2 percent from behind the arc (the worst three-point defense in the D-League).
According to Ingram, any major jumps will have to come on that end of the floor.
"It's all on the defensive end,” Ingram said. “When we hold teams to under 100 — and we can do that — I think we'll win every time. That's just my opinion of us.”
Karl says the D-Fenders’ path towards improved play is a bit more nebulous.
“I think going into the playoffs everyone's got to be on the same page and sacrifice for the opportunity that we have,” Karl said. “It's not necessarily a technical, but more a feel thing.”
If the D-Fenders felt a bit like they were ready to hit the proverbial 2K “sim to postseason” button, that’s no accident.
“I think we've been waiting for the playoffs to get here for a while. Maybe that explains some of the fall or whatever we've been going through, this rut to end the season,” Ingram said. “Because it's different, it changes the level of team you're going to play, the intensity of it.”
With the intensity of playoff basketball less than a week away, the D-Fenders are still confident they can flip the switch.
“That's what the playoffs are all about. There's some guys that just have that next gear,” Karl said. “There's some guys who just live for that moment, and I think we've got a lot of those guys on this team."