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David Nwaba is the Bulls’ Black Panther

There are very few reasons to watch the Bulls this year, so it can be forgiven if you don’t initially recognize the number 11 Chicago jersey streaking up the floor. He doesn’t shoot it like Korver or pass it like Rondo, but the muscular guard draws attention just the same. Maybe it’s the way he throws himself at rebounds. Maybe the way he hassles the primary ball-handler. Each bump from the opposition seems to fire him up, his body transferring the kinetic force into his own energy. This is David Nwaba—the closest approximation to Chicago’s own Black Panther.

When the Bulls first announced their signing of Nwaba off of waivers, the common response from fans was a slight shrug and a continuation of their daily routine. No one cared about a 6’4 guard who played like a power forward. Why bother learning his name when he might not even make it through preseason play?

Of course, Nwaba hardly had an eye-catching resume. While his origin story has been somewhat documented since he entered the league, some things bear repeating. In his senior year at Cal Poly, Nwaba’s shooting splits would make Daryl Morey’s eyes bleed: 46.2% from the field (acceptable), 62.3% from the free throw line (yikes, a little concerning), and a bottom-of-the-well three-point percentage of 14.3%. He went undrafted, taking the Jonathan Simmons route to an NBA contract: bought a tryout spot, joined the D-League, and was eventually called up to the Lakers for a few short opportunities before joining them for the rest of the season. Waived during the summer, he found himself with the Bulls, who themselves were in a position of flux as they began their rebuild.

Nwaba was still anything but a shooter when he first donned the Chicago uniform. Instead, he was the “effort guy” that devoted fans of a team salivate over: TJ McConnell, Amir Johnson, even Omer Asik circa-2011. These guys may have concrete limitations in their games (athleticism, knees, and fundamental skill, in that order) but each have found ways to contribute to their teams through the years.

Nwaba’s limitation was his shooting inability, but he’s found ways to profoundly impact the game whether or not teams are respecting his jumper (yes, some teams still haven’t read the scouting report and play him tight around the arc). Of the five Bulls four-man lineups to have a positive plus-minus for the year, four have contained Nwaba. His DRtg (109) is lower than the Chicago average (110.4). He’s second on the team in DBPM (1.4). He’s one of only three players (the others being Markkanen and Portis) to post 1+ Win Shares on both the defensive and offensive sides of the ball. While defensive stats are still of undetermined accuracy, Nwaba grading out respectably in every category is telling. His constant effort to break up passes and poke balls out of the hands of opponents is the stuff of an All-Pro cornerback, and it shows in the numbers.

These aren’t your average camping-in-the-lane steals. Nwaba is tracking the play and then disrupting it with near-perfect timing so as to avoid either fouling or simply sending the ball out of bounds. He still ends up on the wrong end of the referee’s whistle often enough, but for a physical, young defender, his 3.5 fouls per 36 are reasonably close to players who emulate his style.

Fouls Per 36 stats of similar players

Yes, Nwaba does lead the category, but only marginally. His contributions on the glass, passing lanes, and at the rim are certainly in a similar class to these defenders. He plays physical and this is his first full year in the league. There are bound to be foul struggles.

It’s not like Nwaba is a particularly cerebral defender, ala Andre Iguodala or Shane Battier; he’s not going to force his matchup into their low-percentage areas. Instead, he turns crossing halfcourt into a hassle, each pass a risky endeavor. That’s the role that high-intensity defenders like the ones listed above embrace: making life as difficult as possible on every possession.

On offense, Nwaba is similarly blue-collar. Hoiberg’s offense has never, and likely will never, call for a pindown screen to free Nwaba for a pull-up three. The schemes involving him are tremendously simple, but they are also tremendously effective. Most often is when Nwaba secures the offensive rebound and then zips upcourt with the ball, forcing the defense to rush into sets and mark Bulls players quickly, which obviously increases the odds of mismatches or poor coverage.

Hoiberg recently told Chicago Tribune reporter K.C. Johnson that they have named this set “The Locomotive Package” and there’s hardly a more apt description; Nwaba’s athleticism, which was highlighted in the defensive coverage, is equally devastating here.

While the beginning of the clip is unfortunately cut off, the above action is perhaps the most straightforward version of the Locomotive Package. Nwaba secures the rebound amid a sea of bodies and immediately turns up-court. Zipser is streaking down the center, which is just enough to draw Courtney Lee away from Nwaba, who blows by Lance Thomas and gets a simple, no-frills layup. His fluid athleticism is on full display here, as his sneakily long strides get him gliding past Thomas and up to the rim faster than the small forward can react.

Alternatively, Nwaba can find another teammate for an easy look, as his own speed typically draws more than one defender. That’s the case with Cristiano Felicio, who hustles harder than a man his size has a right to, and receives the dump-off assist as a reward.

What you see in the video above is the Locomotive Package, but with a slight wrinkle. Nwaba doesn’t have a straight shot to the rim, which is where he excels, so he slips in front of Jerian Grant and drops off the ball for the PG to initiate the offense. Nwaba is a sound “simple passer” in that he can make the obvious read and complete the pass with Tim Duncan-level flair. Asking him to run the whole offense simply isn’t realistic yet. Instead, this set has Nwaba do what he does best (rebound, run, attack) while still allowing for some quick half-court actions if the lane is closed off to him. The defense is still forced to quickly adjust, but now Chicago’s primary playmaker on the floor is equipped to take advantage while they find their men.

As Nwaba gets more opportunities with Justin Holiday’s minutes reduction, he’ll be asked to do more. That was apparent against Philadelphia, where Nwaba scored a career-high 21 points doing some of the things he always does, along with one of the things he doesn’t: three-point shooting. It’s a minuscule sample size (his three makes are almost a third of his season total), but for a career slasher to shoot confidently and make all his attempts, it’s at least a promising sign. See here how the Bulls punish the sagging Philadelphia defenders:

No one will ever ask Nwaba to shoot as well as JJ Redick (coincidentally his defender in this sequence), but he doesn’t have to. The threat of a Nwaba drive will make defenders hesitant to choke up on him outside the arc. Having enough shooting ability to make them occasionally regret that decision will be sufficient. He’s shooting 40% from deep this year on a paltry 25 attempts, but that is roughly double his takes and efficiency from the year before (a single make over his five attempts from three). Hoiberg has worked wonders for Kris Dunn’s shooting motion. There’s no reason to think he can’t do the same for Nwaba now.

The 76ers game also showed Nwaba’s propensity for finding the baseline path to the hoop. Whether he was beating Ben Simmons off the dribble or cutting for a Zach LaVine assist, Nwaba was reminiscent of a former Bull from the Bench Mob days: Ronnie Brewer. Brewer’s offense was basically that of a 6’8 Nwaba: non-shooter, best at the rim, and thrived off of well-timed cuts and dives in Thibodeau’s otherwise-stagnant offensive planning. That movement keeps defenses honest and will make teams hesitant to double LaVine on the drive, lest they surrender a wide-open dunk to Nwaba.

This may be an unorthodox observation, but still one worth mentioning. Nwaba always seems aware of the smaller aspects of the game, like when he literally saved Kris Dunn’s career against the 76ers. Dunn had just returned from a serious faceplant (resulting in a concussion and dislocated teeth) against the Warriors and was due for another one after tumbling over Ben Simmons. Instead…

It may seem a silly thing to be talking about a weird and isolated event with so few on-court consequences, but from a different angle, it’s just another indicator of Nwaba’s constant awareness to things that otherwise might not be reacted to.

Constant vigilance and cat-like reflexes used to save those in harm’s way? The superhero comparisons write themselves. Nwaba will continue to fight and claw his way into a longterm position in the NBA, and how he adapts to the increased burden of expectation will be an exciting thing to watch.

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