Though David Nwaba only played 20 games with the Brooklyn Nets before suffering a season-ending injury back in December, that doesn’t mean his impact isn’t still being felt.
The Brooklyn Nets weren’t a good defensive team in the infant moments of the 2019/20 NBA season; in fact, they stunk. Their defensive schemes were arbitrary; they’d fall back into a zone out of desperation when all else was failing; they didn’t communicate, and opposing offenses operated in alarming levels of comfort against their extraneous efforts.
Now you can’t point at one player and definitively say they were the reason for what became a drastic turnaround, but David Nwaba played a role, a significant one at that, in forming this team’s defensive identity.
Kenny Atkinson was initially reluctant to play the 27-year-old journeyman; that is until his positive impact on the floor could no longer be denied. Nwaba scratched and crawled his way into the rotation and earned the trust of his head coach.
This was a player that was received frequent DNP’s early into the season. But that never acted as a deterrent in his efforts. His mental toughness was impenetrable. He knew that he could be a positive contributor to this roster but never lost focus or displayed an attitude when he sat on the pine. When his number was finally going to be called upon, he’d be ready.
In December, Nwaba was finally gifted stability in his minutes after a string of impressive defensive outings earlier in the campaign. And when that happened, he proved his coach correct for taking a gamble by increasing his role.
For the month, he saw 16.7 minutes of action per contest in which he averaged 8.3 points, 2.6 rebounds, 0.7 steals, and 0.8 blocks on 48.2 percent shooting from the field and 40.9 percent from distance.
However, those numbers—though impressive—did not fully encapsulate what he meant to this roster, not by a long shot. With Nwaba on the floor, the Nets had a defensive rating of 94.9. He also held opponents to just 41.0 percent shooting in matchups.
He hounded perimeter players; his intensity was infectious on the floor. Never did you see him take a possession off, and he was shooting the three-point shot at an efficiency that far exceeded his career average. He was a sparkplug whose play translated to winning basketball.
Since going down on December 19 with a ruptured right Achilles’ tendon against the San Antonio Spurs in a meaningless regular-season contest, that fire he brought has yet to be replicated. He played a vital role in reversing the Nets’ defensive fortunes.
When it became known that the Nets were going to have to make teams work, make then uncomfortable in their halfcourt sets and win through their defense to compensate for a lack of offensive firepower—Nwaba led the charge in their transition.
I’d like to reiterate once more that his efforts aren’t the sole reason for the team’s defensive turnaround. He just made the team’s transition to a gritty defensive unit a tad bit easier. His efforts were crucial in forming this team’s defensive identity, that’s his long-lasting impact.