David Nwaba moved with a quiet confidence during his time as a member of the Cal Poly men’s basketball team, and it’s a mentality that has translated well to the next phase of his career.
Although, the mild-mannered nature Nwaba displays off the court is a considerable deviation from what he’s repeatedly shown this winter as a rookie guard on the Los Angeles D-Fenders, the NBA Developmental League affiliate of the Los Angeles Lakers.
A rangy 6-foot-4, 210-pound guard with eye-catching athleticism, Nwaba has carved out a key role for a D-Fenders team that reached the D-League championship series last season.
The 23-year-old Nwaba secured a starting spot in early December as one of the few defensive-minded players on Los Angeles’ roster. He’s averaging 11.6 points, 6.2 rebounds, 1.3 steals and 1.3 blocks per game.
“I had a high expectation for myself and my capabilities,” Nwaba said in a phone interview this week. “It’s just the process of continuing to develop. I expected this.”
Nwaba is the first Cal Poly graduate to sign a D-League contract — believed to be a two-year deal worth $19,500 per season — and is on the path to becoming the first Mustang in program history to reach the NBA.
Cal Poly head coach Joe Callero isn’t surprised by Nwaba’s success as a professional. He hopes to one day point to Nwaba on an NBA roster and show recruits the Big West Conference can be an avenue to the highest level of basketball.
Callero and his coaching staff knew Nwaba had next-level athleticism when he arrived in San Luis Obispo in 2013. Following a redshirt year at Hawaii-Pacific and a stellar freshman season at Santa Monica Junior College, Nwaba helped the Mustangs go on a stunning run to the school’s only NCAA Tournament appearance as a sophomore in 2014.
The following year, Nwaba’s junior season, was marred by a wrist injury that required surgery and a long recovery, a concussion, the discovery of an irregular heart beat and a case of mononucleosis. Though he would still emerge as Cal Poly’s second-leading scorer, Callero felt the wrist injury put a kink in Nwaba’s development.
“We’ve said this over and over, David has the NBA athleticism, speed and quickness to play pro ball for a long time if his skill level keeps catching up,” Callero said. “Because of that injury, I think he was just thrown backward so far, that I’m not surprised (by the success) because of his athleticism.”
The first few months of Nwaba’s professional career seem to back up that sentiment.
Los Angeles coach Coby Karl said Nwaba is “probably the best defender in our league” in a recent story on SB Nation.
“Defensively he really puts up a stand against guys,” Karl continued. “He’s just showing that he belongs.”
It’s all a little bit surreal for Nwaba, who grew up in Los Angeles and followed the Kobe Bryant-led Lakers.
His mother, Blessing, and sister, Barbara, a professional heptathlete who won the 2015 U.S. Track and Field Championships, often attend D-Fenders games in El Segundo, a 20-minute drive from Nwaba’s home.
It’s a path that deviates from most former Cal Poly standouts who have joined professional leagues overseas, a group that includes Brian Bennett (Germany), Joel Awich (France), Chris Eversley (Germany), Anthony Silvestri (Ireland) and Kyle Odister (England), among others.
Landing a spot in the 22-team D-League as a tryout player was the nearly perfect fit, according to Callero. Staying close to home better suited Nwaba’s laid back personality, Callero said, noting that moving to another country and learning a different language could have been a difficult adjustment.
Instead, Nwaba is rarely far from a home-cooked meal and has been able to focus solely on basketball.
The thunderous dunks he routinely displayed at Mott Athletics Center have carried over to the next level. D-Fenders’ play-by-play announcer Eric Rothman anointed Nwaba “Mr. Dunk,” albeit not the most creative nickname.
The little things Nwaba did so well at Cal Poly — he led the Mustangs in nearly every statistical category as a senior — have made him an asset with the D-Fenders. He can guard three positions, has active hands in passing lanes, can block shots from the weak side and is a relentless finisher in transition.
“He’s really a guy that really stood out in training camp,” D-Fenders general manager Nick Mazzella told SB Nation. “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.”
Los Angeles (13-5) is less than halfway through its 50-game schedule, and Nwaba said he’s embracing every step of the process. He doesn’t agree with the perhaps unsavory stigma that surrounds the D-League, saying the experience has continually exceeded his expectations.
“I’m enjoying myself, and I plan on staying next year also,” Nwaba said. “I have no complaints, to be honest. I’m enjoying the ride and, you know, I’m just going with the flow and seeing what I can do and how far I can go.”