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It’s been a relatively quiet offseason for the Cleveland Cavaliers… in terms of acquisitions, anyway.
Sure, they’ve lost plenty, specifically, LeBron James. Oh, Jeff Green, Jose Calderon and team mascot Kendrick Perkins have also exited from the roster that ended the 2018 season with a Finals loss to the Golden State Warriors.
Among the non-draft additions, Channing Frye (welcome back!), Sam Dekker and to a lesser extent, Isaiah Taylor, are well known. Frye for his years of solid service in his first go around with the Cavaliers and Dekker more so for helping Wisconsin reach the NCAA Tournament championship game, then playing for the Rockets and the Clippers once he turned pro.
The other new guy, however, is more of an unknown. That doesn’t make him any less important, however. In fact, it has the potential to be the exact opposite.
There are more than likely several Cleveland fans who don’t even know how to pronounce David Nwaba’s name. For the record, it’s “NWAH-buh.”
The 6-foot-4, 209-pound swingman agreed to sign with the Cavaliers two weeks ago, but terms have yet to be disclosed, likely because the team is still attempting to get a deal done with another swingman, restricted free agent Rodney Hood.
No one on the planet, let alone on the Cavaliers, is going to replace James and his titanic production.
However, Nwaba is a nice, new bandage to what will be a gaping wound for Cleveland all season.
The 25-year-old played in 70 games in his second NBA season a year ago, this one for the Chicago Bulls, and became just what the Cavaliers are attempting to collect to surround five-time All-Star Kevin Love — a group of solid rotation players, along with a dash of eighth overall draft pick Collin Sexton being added to the mix.
Nwaba, 25, averaged 23.5 minutes for the Bulls last season, starting 21 games, and averaged 7.9 points, 4.7 rebounds and 1.5 assists, shooting 47.8 percent from the field, 34.6 percent from deep and 65.5 percent from the free-throw line.
In his 21 starts, Nwaba averaged 10.4 points, 6.0 rebounds and posted a 46.2/.46.4/70.2 shooting line.
As a rookie two years ago, Nwaba played in 20 games (2 starts) for the Los Angeles Lakers, averaging 6.0 points and 3.2 boards with a shooting line of 58.0/20.0/64.1.
But numbers are just that, numbers. They can be used to make a point, but don’t always tell the story.
After going back and watching several games from last season, Nwaba is a guy who resembles one of his new Cleveland teammates, Cedi Osman.
Nwaba is extremely active on both ends of the floor. Offensively, he’s not a “shooter,” so to speak, and that’s a good thing for the version of the Cavs that will be on display this season.
The Cal Poly product runs the floor with speed and aggression in transition, has excellent hands and finishes well at the rack. Always on the move, Nwaba is not awful off the bounce, but it’s not his strength, at least not yet.
Check out this terrific going-the-distance-spin-move-and-finish-in-between-three-defenders sequence in a game at Miami last season:
In Chicago, Nwaba averaged only 6.0 shots per game and, going back to the numbers, his field-goal percentage (47.8) and 3-point percentage (34.6) are aspects upon which can be built.
It must be noted, though, Nwaba is not a 3-point shooter… he doesn’t take many — only 52 in 70 games, or 0.7 per appearance, last season. However, after the All-Star break, he made good on 39 percent of his attempts from deep and his 34.6 conversion rate from deep was much better than that of the aforementioned more-touted Dekker, a former first-round draft choice of the Houston Rockets (18th overall in 2015) and a career 28 percent shooter from beyond the arc on 1.8 attempts per game.
Nwaba enjoys life in the paint, drawing contact and getting to the free-throw line.
Evidenced by the fact Nwaba was seventh in the NBA last season in terms of free-throw attempts per field-goal attempts with a mark of 0.480.
Just how good is that number? Consider, reigning NBA Most Valuable Player James Harden’s number was 0.469 last season.
Some guy named James? He was at 0.356 in what many consider to be the best season in his spectacular 15-year career.
“You have to be aggressive going to the basket, so it’s important that I play off my teammates,” Nwaba told Mark Strotman of NBC Sports Chicago in January. “That’s what I like to bring — looking to score in transition, bringing energy and going to the basket.”
Nwaba fits the mold of the type of player general manager Koby Altman and coach Tyronn Lue have stated of whom they are searching — younger, athletic guys who can get up and down the floor.
Similar to what is being said about Osman, Nwaba’s performance last season could be a precursor of bigger things to come, if given the opportunity for more minutes.
Consider Nwaba’s per-36 minutes numbers from last season:
- 12.1 points, 7.1 rebounds, 2.3 assists and 1.3 steals.
Now, let’s look at Osman’s per-36 digits from last season:
- 12.7 points, 6.4 boards, 2.2 assists and 1.2 steals.
While the 23-year-old Osman is being heralded as a youngster whom the Cavaliers can build around, and understandably so, given the fact he played his rookie season in Cleveland, all indications are the same could be expected from Nwaba.
Defensively, his 7-foot wingspan allows the high-motor, aggressive (see Osman, Cedi… again) Nwaba to deflect passes and to dig in on the perimeter, while at the same time, hang in there when he finds himself defending on the block or helping at the rim, as Bucks All-Star Giannis Antetokounmpo learned — the hard way — during a game last season:
Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg raved about Nwaba’s abilities on the defensive end of the floor.
“David’s the most versatile defender we have on our team,” he told Strotman. “Whether he’s shooting the ball or not, whether he’s making shots or not, he’s still going to have a positive impact on the game.
“First and foremost because of his effort, which is a skill, to go out and play with that type of effort. And the other thing is defensively he’s always going to go out and battle.”
For Cleveland, which was abysmal on that end of the floor last season, finishing 29th out of 30 NBA teams in defense, Nwaba should be a sight for very-sore eyes.
“It’s just important that I bring energy when I get out there,” Nwaba said. “And do what I do on the defensive end and try to get stops as best as I can.”
Such as he did against two-time NBA MVP Steph Curry of Golden State during a game at United Center last season. How frustrated was Curry after the sequence? Well, he didn’t throw his mouthpiece as he did against the Cavaliers during the 2016 NBA Finals, but watch what he does after the Warriors call timeout:
With point guard Sexton, regarded as a solid defender even at age 19 and coming off only one season at Alabama, and now Nwaba, the Cavaliers suddenly have the potential to trot out a pair of not only capable, but willing defenders in the backcourt. Throw in Osman, along with veteran point guard George Hill and big man Tristan Thompson, and the Cavaliers actually have the makings of a much-improved squad on the defensive end of the floor.
“Trying to do the little things to help my team win, and if it means guarding their best guy, I’ll do the best that I can and try to get stops,” Nwaba said. “Defense is what I like to do. I’m trying to get stops.”
A new era, indeed.
Nwaba penned an essay for The Players’ Tribune in September 2015. In that piece, he talked extensively about his journey and offered something in which Cavaliers’ fans are certainly in need having watched James desert them for a second time.
“If you take anything away from my story, I hope it will will be this: No journey is a straight line — every single one looks a little different,” he said. “Trust yourself and go to work. If it’s truly what you want, never let the dream die.
“You might just surprise yourself.”