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Bulls Should Hold On to Nwaba for the Long Run

Coming into the season, I’ll admit I didn’t even know the Bulls had picked up David Nwaba. When he took the court for Chicago in October, I continually asked myself who this guy was.

Five months later, it’s hard to be a Bulls fan and not know who he is. Yes, he doesn’t score a lot, but his aggressiveness on the court and fair amount of minutes make him hard to ignore. However, he still doesn’t get the respect I believe he deserves.

And this isn’t some made-up justification where I talk about his “clutch gene,” “x-factor” or “fundamentals” without stats to back it up. No. If you look at David Nwaba’s stats, you’ll find he’s an incredibly efficient player.

Besides his trouble creating mid-range shots, there are no real weaknesses in his game. And as long as he can get to the rim and shoot at such a high percentage, there’s no reason the Bulls shouldn’t keep him around. Considering he’s only 25 years old, Nwaba is a good investment for Chicago as they rebuild.

Alright, let’s see just what I’m talking about with his stats. This season, Nwaba is averaging 7.3 points per game, 1.2 assists per game, and 4.5 rebounds per game. Taking into account his 22.4 minutes per game mark, those are decent numbers. But what makes Nwaba special in my eyes is his shooting percentage. Today, it stands at 53.5%, which is certainly well above-average, but not extraordinary. Of all players averaging 20+ minutes per game, Nwaba is 27th in the league in shooting percentage.

However, what makes him stand out is the profile of the 26 players ahead of him. They are almost exclusively big men, guys who take high-percentage shots and not much of anything else. Nwaba however, is one of just a few players in the league who are that small, play that many minutes, and still shoot that well.

Examining his shot chart, one may reason that Nwaba isn’t actually that different from the big men. Take a look at it, courtesy of Basketball Reference:


Pretty crazy, right? OK, so he takes shots similar to how a big man would. But it’s precisely that distinction that’s important. See, a power forward or center gets the ball in the post, whether off rebounds or passes, works, and fires away. Nwaba, on the other hand, earns most of those shots by driving into the lane. Contrary to a big man working, those drives put greater pressure on the defense as he works past his defender. Usually they will collapse, leaving holes, because it’s much harder to stop an athletic forward with momentum than it is to stop a slower, methodical post player.

This opens up the offense for the rest of the Bulls, so long as he can find them. Importantly, he does that well, rather than forcing up a bad shot. Cough, Denzel Valentine, cough. Look at that shot chart—he’s taken almost no mid-range shots. When he meets strong resistance on his way to the basket, he makes the smart decision and passes.

Impressively, he does that efficiently as well, committing a meager 1.4 turnovers per 36 minutes. That’s well below the league average.

OK, so he shoots efficiently, spreads defenses more while doing so, and doesn’t turn the ball over a lot. What else?

Circling back to my original numbers, Nwaba’s rebounds per 36 minutes mark, 7.2, is good for fifth on the Bulls. Nwaba plays decent defense as well, notably coming in fifth and fourth on Chicago for steals P36M and blocks P36M. Furthermore, he’s shooting three-pointers at a solid 40% clip, but only on 25 attempts. Yes, that’s too small a sample size, but I’d like to see what he can do if he shot from deep more often.

After all, he was 3-3 from behind the arc against Philadelphia last week in his best performance to date. A closer look at that game illustrates all the skills Nwaba brings to the table. Pay attention to his defensive prowess in the first couple minutes and his driving abilities at the tail end of the clip:

Speaking of recent outings, Nwaba is getting a lot more minutes now as part of vice president of basketball operations John Paxson‘s player evaluating plan. While granting minutes to guys like Cristiano Felicio and Cameron Payne is really just tanking in disguise, I don’t think that’s the case for Nwaba. I believe, or at least hope, that the Bulls are taking a long, hard look at Nwaba’s potential.

What has he accomplished with those extra minutes? In 32 mpg since the All-Star Break, Nwaba has posted averages of 13 points, 1.5 assists, and 7.5 rebounds per game. Adjusted for minutes, that’s more scoring than Nwaba is used to this season. Perhaps a vote of confidence from management translates into increased inner confidence for Nwaba.

Looking at everything, this has the makings of a Jimmy Butler type situation. I’m not saying Nwaba will turn into a Butler-caliber player. Rather, I’m recognizing that modest but efficient stats early on in a career could lead to huge growth as the player develops. Nwaba almost certainly won’t turn into the superstar Butler is now, but that’s not what the Bulls require.

Given more time to mature and gain confidence, Nwaba could become more assertive on the offensive end. His seven points per game could blossom into fifteen, while his minutes increase correspondingly. Meanwhile, his shooting percentage might go down a tad, but in all likelihood he would still put the ball in the hoop at a higher percentage than most. On top of that, he has the foundation to build a respectable three-point game, which would make him exponentially more versatile.

All of those things are not guarantees, but it’s undeniable that Nwaba is a good player on the rise. Work needs to be done, but he’s exacty the type of player Paxson, general manager Gar Forman, and head coach Fred Hoiberg should want on their roster.

David Nwaba becomes a restricted free agent at the end of this year, and with the Bulls’ minuscule payroll, signing him should be an easy task. All Nwaba needs to do to earn that contract? Play like he’s been playing.


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