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FILM STUDY: A look back at David Nwaba’s contributions to a long and crazy season

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David Nwaba is unlikely to return to Brooklyn after suffering a rupture of his Achilles last December. Still, it’s worth taking a look back at his contributions in the light of this crazy, unending season.

Denver Nuggets v Brooklyn Nets Photo by Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images

I’ve been going on a lot of long walks with my dog.

No, this isn’t me painting myself as some pseudo-intellectual, pondering the inner meanings of the world we live in. And no, I’m not reciting the first line of a Tinder bio from a profile stuffed to the brim with mirror picks, gym flexes, staged pics with pets, and so, so many photos at the beach.

This is how I, Matt, a Californian 20-somethin’ who moved to Brooklyn just two short years ago, have found myself predominantly passing time during this strange new era of quarantined living. My routine is simple: nearly every morning I select a new area of Brooklyn to explore, I pick out a route consisting of mostly backroads and side-streets to minimize human-to-human contact, I throw on a medical mask or bandana (sometimes both!), I leash up the pup, and I head out.

I’m throwing up in my mouth a little for even saying this because of the influencer stigma that has ruined this word, but I’m definitely of the “adventuresome” type, especially as someone who is still fairly new to this widespread Brooklyn area. Plus, being in the great outdoors for even just 30 minutes at a time has given me a break from the cold realities that we encounter on a near minute-by-minute basis by scrolling through Twitter, flipping through our news apps, and interacting with family and friends on messengers and video chats. The gravity of this dismal situation is frankly unavoidable, and for whatever reason, long walks have been my temporary solution to this insoluble time.

I bring up all of this to say: I haven’t been thinking about hoops all that much. Discussing free agency, fake trades and prospective moves feels almost… inconsequential at this point in time, trivial really. Especially as someone living within one of the two biggest Coronavirus hotspots in the entire damn world: Brooklyn, New York.

NBA basketball won’t return for a while. And it shouldn’t. We must focus on social distancing. We, as New Yorkers, as Americans, must focus on uplifting our fellow citizens. The NBA is no different; many of its players and personnel are heroic figures –– they’re the people we as fans look up to. They can greatly set the standard for how to behave while fighting this illness, and that means… by not doing their jobs at all.

It doesn’t help that, while reminiscing over this strange Nets season that we’ve all been so very entwined with, there isn’t exactly a lot to blabber on and on about. I mean, press a gun to my temple and ask me to name the three biggest success stories, would Chris Chiozza, who played just 11 total games, be one of the first names to leave my mouth?

One player I think we all can agree upon when discussing these hypothetical rankings, and one of the few hoopers I’ve spent significant time mulling over as of late, is David Nwaba, the standout two-way wing who burst upon the scene in December after an up-and-down start to the season that was headlined by five DNPs in six games during late-November. Nwaba’s ability to greatly enhance Brooklyn’s transition offense, knock down just shy of 43 percent of his long-range looks, and massacre opposing half-court sets jump-started his beloved inception as a Brooklyn heartthrob even in just 268 total minutes of play in a black, white, and sometimes grey jersey. What exactly had the Nets community stricken with Nwab-sanity?

This wouldn’t be a David Nwaba write-up without significant mention of his defense, which is, after all, the dude’s mother effin’ calling card. We’re approaching four months to the day since Nwaba played his last game in a Nets jersey, yet even now, he remains the team leader in defensive rating with an absurd 94.9 points allowed per 100 possessions.

The Cal Poly product was simply infallible as a defensive pest, picking up opponents of all different shapes and sizes. The results were largely the same. Should Brooklyn’s opponent possess a spidery Kevin Durant-ish (emphasis on the “ish”) three-level scorer like, say, Brandon Ingram, the Nets would gladly sick David Nwaba on ‘em to stalk their every movement.

But wait, what if the opposition boasted an old school post-up brute like Al Horford? No reason to fret, leave the banging in the post to the reliable 6-foot-5 blockade, who gladly wielded his barrel-chested 218-pound brawniness, sturdy stance and footwork expertise, and relentless determination to send much taller opponents stumbling into uncharacteristic fade-away shots.

Should a Nets adversary get a bit of a head start in transition, Nwaba can more than make up ground with a supersonic chase-down block. Here he ambushes Pascal Siakam on the fast-break, who, no big deal, has a strong case as the league’s best transition player due to impressive volume (270 total possessions, 10th in league) and marked efficiency (1.22 points per possession). Notice how Siakam slightly eases his foot off the gas to enhance his control and balance around the basket, giving Nwaba just enough time to leap and swat away the ball in one swift motion like a Honey, I Shrunk the Kids LeBron James.

Emphatic blocks only represent half of Nwaba’s defensive package. As a certifiable glue guy, it’s only fitting he possesses sticky hands to pick off passes galore and produce deflections in bunches. A hyper-quick hand-eye reaction pattern, innate sense of timing and everlasting competitive edge fuse together to form a truly destructive force in the passing-lanes, known to some around these parts as “Nwakanda.”

While hustlin’ hard like Ace Hood on defense helped pave the way for Nwaba in Brooklyn, it’s his offense that took the biggest leap this season. He’s not your prototypical scorer in that he rarely creates his own offense. Instead, Nwaba diligently fits in by completing plays with catch-and-release threes, well-timed cuts, and nimble transition buckets. The last of which was my favorite aspect of Nwaba’s offensive game. Say what you want about Nwaba’s limitations as an offensive player, but the 27-year-old routinely busted out a plethora of flashy finishes on the break in his inaugural season as a Net. It’s a big reason he was a 70th percentile transition scorer, per Synergy. Here’s a Pu pu Platter of some of those big time moves as a little quarantine taster, starting with his elongated euro-step…

A topsy-turvy spin move, which would send even the sturdiest of defenders stumbling into the drunk tank…

Or even a sudden acceleration into the chest of smaller defender, aimed to overpower poor hapless fools on the break…

For as good as Nwaba was as a fast-break wrecking ball, he was even better as a spot-up threat according to Synergy (88th percentile). I can’t even begin to describe how shocking of a development this was to watch unfurl in real-time.

Nwaba shot just 20 percent from deep in his rookie season, a league-average 34.6 percent as a sophomore, and a not-so-great 32 percent as a Cavalier in 2018-2019. His inability to space the floor was, by far, the biggest reason he was forced to settle for a veteran-minimum level contract at just 27 years old. And yet, funny enough, it’s that same iffy shot that saved his career as a member of the Nets.

Once on the cutting board on the eve of Wilson Chandler’s return from his 25-game suspension, Nwaba made himself an almost immediate fixture of Brooklyn’s rotation by becoming an overnight success behind the arc.

While 28 total threes taken (all of which came off the catch, might I add) is by no means a reasonable sample to make serious long-term judgements about his proficiency as a floor spacer, it is just enough to birth a sliver of cautious hopefulness. Nwaba’s confidence seemed to grow with every game, and by the end of his tenure, he was stepping into contested spot-threes like a seasoned-pro:

Look, in an ideal world, we’d continue to muse over David Nwaba’s many highlights with no regard for reality. But frankly, at this point in time, his status as a professional hooper is held in the balance by the power of modern medicine. On December 19th, David Nwaba went down with an injury against the Spurs that would later be diagnosed as a right Achilles tendon tear. It was an unfair stoppage to Nwaba’s momentous breakout season, a tragic moment best summarized by former coach Kenny Atkinson.

“There’s no guy on the team who does things more perfectly in terms of preparing for a game, preparing for a season. You just feel ill when you think about it.”

Kenny’s daunting statements weren’t merely melodramatics. According to a study by the American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons, “almost half of 44 NBA players who ruptured Achilles tendons over the past three decades were unable to return or play more than 10 games upon returning to the league.” For many of these players, a significant decline in athleticism contributed to their downfalls.

That’s an issue for Nwaba, whose biggest strength as a player stems from his overpowering physical gifts. Conceivably, there is a world in which Nwaba trends closer to average as a defender and his transition game slows to a downtrodden crawl. Ironically, the aspect of his game once seen as his biggest weakness – his shot – could represent his lifeline to remaining an NBA pro.

At best, perhaps his career arc can mirror that of Wesley Matthews, who after years of toiling in obscurity following his 2015 left Achilles tear, carved out a nice 3-and-D role on the contending 2020 Milwuakee Bucks a full five years later. Maybe, after years of perseverance, Nwaba can wiggle his way into a similarly savory situation.

I don’t expect Nwaba to return to Brooklyn to the dismay of many, I’m sure. You’ve heard it before, but the Nets are in title-mode and can’t afford too many mistakes. David Nwaba will undoubtedly encounter many winding turns and bumps in the road while finding himself again; he’ll need time to work through his warts –– and a stable support system to build back his confidence anew. At times, I don’t expect the results to be pretty, especially during the early portion of his rehabilitation process.

For the betterment of his career, his home is no longer in Brooklyn… though he will be greatly missed. Be well, David Nwaba. And to the rest of you, I wish the same.