David Nwaba is well aware of the popular narrative surrounding his storybook ascension from a once-overlooked high school recruit in Los Angeles to a consistent contributor in the NBA for his hometown Lakers.
It was an unexpected dream scenario that saw the former Cal Poly men’s basketball standout pay his own way to attend a summer tryout in front of professional scouts, eventually landing in El Segundo as a member of the NBA Development League D-Fenders.
The rangy 6-foot-4, 209-pound Nwaba played his way through consecutive 10-day contracts, leaving a strong impression on the Lakers’ front office that netted him a multiyear deal to remain in the NBA through the remainder of the 2016-17 season.
Once the regular season ended Monday night, Nwaba sat down with Lakers President of Basketball Operations Earvin “Magic” Johnson, general manager Rob Pelinka and head coach Luke Walton for his first exit interview.
When Nwaba met with members of the media shortly after, he was asked to reflect on the past year in which he lived out a dream many young people in Los Angeles are never able to realize.
“The story doesn’t seem too special but, I mean, I guess you guys make it seem like it is,” Nwaba told reporters with his usual laid-back demeanor. “But, I haven’t heard anything about a movie.”
While there might not be a screenplay in the works, Nwaba’s remarkable rise is one of the better stories for a Los Angeles team that finished 26-56 overall and owned the third-worst record in the NBA.
After being called up from the D-League on Feb. 28, Nwaba played in 20 games for the Lakers, averaging 6 points and 3.2 rebounds in 19.9 minutes per contest.
He shot a team-high 58 percent from the field and was a relentless defender, drawing assignments on NBA All-Stars LeBron James, John Wall, Kimba Walker and Andrew Wiggins, among others.
The 24-year-old Nwaba was even asked to split time during the final month of the season between the Lakers and D-Fenders, who were competing in the D-League playoffs. He drew consistent praise from both Walton and D-Fenders coach Coby Karl for his attitude and defensive prowess.
“It doesn’t seem like he cares about anything but winning and playing defense, really,” Walton told reporters earlier this month. “He’s so committed to what he’s doing on the defensive end for us, that it’s really clear to see what the game is like when he’s out there and he’s not.”
Nwaba was a difference maker in the 40 games he played with the D-Fenders, averaging 14.1 points, 6.9 rebounds, 1.4 steals and 1.2 blocks in less than 29 minutes per contest. He led the D-League in field-goal percentage at 64.9, rarely taking shots outside of the paint.
He became something of a fan favorite in his short time with the Lakers. Nwaba showed the same eye-catching athleticism and thunderous slam dunks that were commonplace during his three years as a Mustang.
To be sure, there was an adjustment period going from the Big West Conference to the D-League to the NBA.
“It’s a much faster game, but I feel like I can definitely guard these guys,” Nwaba said. “In the beginning, I would kind of give them too much respect, just knowing their name. But I just realized later on it’s just basketball. The game was a little bit faster, but it’s nothing I can’t keep up with.”
Nwaba knows defense will be his meal ticket moving forward.
His exit interview was largely positive, Nwaba said, and the Lakers’ front office wants him to continue working on his perimeter jump shot and ballhandling during the offseason.
He plans to play for Los Angeles during the Las Vegas Summer League in July and “do whatever it takes to remain here and remain a Laker.”
Safe to say Nwaba is well ahead of schedule.
“I’m just happy they gave me the opportunity,” Nwaba said. “Now I know what I need to do in order to play with the best of them. I’m excited about the offseason and ready to put in a lot of work.”
David Nwaba’s Rookie Season At a Glance
D-League: Averaged 14.1 points, 6.9 rebounds in 40 games with the L.A. D-Fenders
NBA: Averaged 6 points, 3.2 rebounds in 20 games with the L.A. Lakers
Quote worthy: “He’s so committed to what he’s doing on the defensive end for us,” head coach Luke Walton said, “that it’s really clear to see what the game is like when he’s out there and he’s not.”