During a visit to UC Santa Barbara as a junior college standout, David Nwaba began to picture life as a Gaucho.
Landing there made sense. After all, Nwaba's sister's career had taken off at Santa Barbara, and the coaches of the men's basketball team clearly liked him. They'd brought him in for an unofficial visit and invited his parents, too. During a show-us-what-you-got scrimmage with the team, Nwaba's flashbulb quickness and aerial exploits were on full display. He stood out. He belonged.
But the scholarship offer never came.
"At the last second they recruited someone else over me," Nwaba says. "So that one hurt a lot."
Up until he reached the NBA recently, each chapter of Nwaba's career had gone the same way: a promise of hope that eventually reached a newly confounding roadblock.
He dominates the Los Angeles City Section his senior year of high school—but can't catch a ride to a Division I program. He transfers into D-I and takes Cal Poly to its first-ever NCAA tournament as the snapping jaws of the team's ferocious 1-3-1 zone—it's not even worth a summer league pinny. He lands his first pro job with the D-League's Reno Bighorns off a $150 tryout—only to be traded before his first practice to the Los Angeles D-Fenders.
Now that the 6-foot-4 wing has been called up to the Los Angeles Lakers, it's hard to say whether he took the scenic route or a shortcut to get to the NBA. For all the detours—three colleges in five years—he's lockering next to Luol Deng less than a year removed from graduation. It's surprising to everyone, Nwaba included, that he made it this far this quickly. But it's not surprising to him that he made it. After grinding out a pair of 10-day joints, he signed a contract for the rest of this season with a club option for next year. The contract is about as real a commitment as he's gotten since high school.
The morals of the David Nwaba story are what you'd expect for a guy who was constantly overlooked—work hard, be patient, stay within yourself. Despite his unusually arduous ascent, Nwaba doesn't boast of any mythology; he doesn't need it for motivation. "He's as humble as I've seen," says Coby Karl, his coach in the D-League. "He thinks it's funny when you give him a compliment." (This is true.)
The character stuff doesn't really tell you why he made it, but it helps explain why he didn't wash out before he got his chance. He's not a particularly well-rounded player, at least not yet. Right now, he's merely a defensive specialist with great timing and hops that would make Russell Westbrook blush. But a strong identity can be as much of an asset in the NBA as a 6-foot-11 wingspan. Nwaba has both. He knew he could handle stronger competition; he kept on playing until it found him.
"Just get me in the door, and I'll handle the rest by myself," he said after a recent practice at the Lakers' training facility in El Segundo. "That's always what I felt was all I needed."
Steve Ackerman was Nwaba's basketball coach at University High School in West Los Angeles, where Ackerman also teaches government and advises the school's student council. Ackerman calls himself the "cruise director" of the 1,600-student public school; interviewing him in his classroom means glitter on your sleeves and students ducking in to get information on the campus blood drive.
The Wildcats have not been a regional basketball powerhouse for most of Ackerman's 20-plus years as a coach. But during the years he had David Nwaba, they were.
The star guard-forward (Nwaba was about as tall as anyone else on the team, so he played 1 through 4) carried out a vendetta on local rims on his way to three years on the All-City team and three straight city championship games. Then, as now, he was a quiet kid with a loud game. During his senior year, Ackerman touted Nwaba as the best high school athlete in the Southland.
"Everything he played, he was good at," the coach remembered. "He picked up a volleyball, and he could have played collegiate volleyball. He picked up a football, and he probably could have been an All-City wide receiver."
The running joke was that Nwaba, the third of six children, wasn't even the best athlete in his family. His older sister Barbara is a national champion heptathlete who competed in the 2016 Olympics. But even she was swept up in the hype. "I remember seeing him do a windmill one time and thinking like, 'Who is this guy?'" said Barbara. "He was always better than the other guys on his team. We always wanted to see him go farther."
But there's a certain hustle being run for teenage basketball players, Ackerman says, that helps them get into D-1 schools. Nwaba wasn't a fixture at sneaker camps and he played travel ball only briefly, so he wasn't swept up in the corporate recruiting net. His senior year wound down without any Division I fanfare. Hawaii Pacific, a Division II school, was the only scholarship offer he got. Reluctant to follow the junior college route, he accepted the offer without visiting the school.
"It frustrated me because I don't think [coaches] did their due diligence in really researching him," Ackerman said. "With recruiting, a lot of times you're trying to pick the prettiest flower in a field of pretty flowers...The mechanism for finding guys is totally off."
Ackerman has taped up a small shrine to Nwaba on the wall outside his classroom. The centerpiece is an LA Times press clipping from September, accompanied by a photo of Nwaba smiling with a D-League teammate. The article, Ackerman points out, was about the teammate.
Hawaii Pacific held its basketball practices in a high school gym, which was all Nwaba needed to see to redshirt and begin the transfer process, preferring to save a year of eligibility rather than waste it on inferior competition. He went to University of Hawaii games and was enthralled by the atmosphere, and the size of the arena. He was not, however, impressed by the competition. "I looked at them and I was like, man I could play with these guys, like, why can't I be here?"
He left Hawaii and enrolled in junior college back home. Because of arcane NCAA credit-transfer rules, his year at Santa Monica College was spent more in the library playing academic catchup than the gym. ("I had to take tough classes like chemistry and history," he said. "I hate history.") He still averaged 20 and 8 for the Corsairs. About a week after Santa Barbara passed on him, he was invited to campus by UCSB's rival in the Big West, Cal Poly. This time, he got the offer.
At Cal Poly, he found his defensive calling at the top of a 1-3-1 zone, strafing the perimeter for deflections and leaking out for vicious highlight-reel slams in transition. His play earned him the nickname "Sav," as in savage.
"I remember, he was so good when we played Gonzaga," Cal Poly Coach Joe Callero recalled. "David stole the ball from them a few times and had some big dunks. [Then recently,] one of their coaches called, said, 'gee, we want to know more about your 1-3-1, that was really impressive.' He said, 'are you still doing it.' I said, 'no we're not.' He said, 'why not.' I said, 'because we don't have David Nwaba at the top of it.'"
In 2014, Nwaba's sophomore year, the Mustangs made a Cinderella run through the Big West Tournament and into March Madness. Cal Poly defeated Texas Southern in a First Four matchup, but then lost to No. 1 seed Wichita State. That would end up being the team's most successful season with Nwaba. The Mustangs went 13-16 in '14-'15 and then 10-20 in '15-'16.
Nwaba figured he would play overseas after graduation, or maybe get a spot on a summer league roster. But last summer, after three years at Cal Poly, nobody was interested. So he hit the tryout circuit.
Lakers Coach Luke Walton has his own hypothesis as to how a future NBA player fails to crack Division I out of high school.
"Maybe the answer is he wasn't very good," Walton said, chuckling. "He's worked his tail off to get where he is now. He's an unbelievable kid."
Of course, the Lakers not being very good is a major reason Nwaba got his shot. Their defense has been a reeking stew of ill-fated gambles, mental mistakes, and plainly bad effort—they are three games worse than the Philadelphia 76ers. So when a roster spot opened up in late March, the front office, at Walton's behest, looked to their D-League roster for a player who could stay between his man and the hoop.
Walton was surprised, though, to find someone who could stay between his man and his man's shadow. It would not be a stretch to call Nwaba the best defensive player on the Lakers, and Walton says he frequently stars in film sessions. Against the likes of LeBron James, John Wall, and Andrew Wiggins, Nwaba has acquitted himself well enough to stay not only on the team, but on the floor, too. "He saves me a lot of energy," said teammate Jordan Clarkson. More than a few players have lost their shots in the ceiling fan of Nwaba's swinging limbs.
Games, though, are not the same as tryouts, which seem designed to dampen Nwaba's strengths and amplify his weaknesses. He's got a shaky jumper and limited ballhandling ability, deficiencies that stand out in a point-guard dominated setting. And anyone can play defense for a possession, or hustle for a whole tryout, Karl pointed out. Even a monster dunk might be dismissed from a small sample.
Nwaba drove to tryouts in Las Vegas, in L.A., in Reno. Some were invitation-only, some he had to pay for. A mix of D-League general managers and international scouts show up to these showcases, but a few are there just to find a tall guy. There are a lot of 6-foot-4 tweeners hoping to catch someone's eye. Everyone plays hard.
The Reno tryout was put together by the Bighorns, the Sacramento Kings' D-League affiliate, but Nwaba shelled out the $150 thinking he might get spotted by a scout from overseas. Instead, he wound up landing a training camp invite with the Bighorns. The D-Fenders, a few weeks after working him out in LA, traded for Nwaba on October 30.
Nwaba didn't even start at first with the D-Fenders. But his relentlessness quickly forced Karl's hand. "There's a difference between doing something with your head with the knowledge that I'm gonna do this, I'm gonna play hard," Karl said, "and then doing it with your soul, or with your spirit. And Dave, when he plays, you can tell he's locked in. That's who he is."
Eventually, Nwaba's coach was calling him the best defensive player in the D-League. But even Karl, who gave Nwaba the news of his first 10-day contract, had to admit: he did not think there would be a second.
The holes in Nwaba's offensive game give him one advantage: a defined role on the court. Someone who can go get 20 every night in the D-League won't get the shots in the NBA; he'll have to provide value in some other capacity. Nwaba, on the other hand, has a very particular set of skills—skills that have translated at every level. He knows he is being put in for defense, and he embraces it.
"Pressuring guards, getting those steals, getting the fast break dunks or whatever," Nwaba said, "that was always a joy."
There are a million versions of David Nwaba's career in which he doesn't make the NBA. Would he have eventually gotten the call if he'd first had to play in, say, Turkey, or Israel, or Greece? Would the Sacramento Kings have called him up from Reno? It's hard to picture—with his contract for next year non-guaranteed, he might not even play for the Lakers next season.
The only thing that seems certain is that he would have played anywhere if he thought it would get him closer to the NBA. Nwaba's best guess this time a year ago was that he'd be playing overseas. He'd already gone from Division II to junior college to the Big West—what was a trip around the world on top of that? Or, for that matter, $150 for a tryout?
"He never vocalized how far he wanted to go," said Barbara, his sister, "but everyone just kinda knew what the big goal was. You could just tell the drive that he had."
Nwaba couldn't accept the idea that he wasn't good enough—whether or not he was actually good enough wasn't the point. "I never thought the NBA was some sort of like, that these guys are out of the world," he said. "I never thought that. I always believed I could play at this level."
Nwaba might be a fringe guy who threaded the needle, or he might be an NBA bona-fide who just couldn't catch a break. He has the rest of his career to answer that question. But for now, he knows who he is, and where he is. It's not a bad place to start.