Chicago Bulls Nwaba's rise to NBA rising star is an unlikely story

Updated 12/10/2017 8:21 PM
  • Chicago Bulls guard David Nwaba dunks against the New York Knicks during the second half of an NBA basketball game, Saturday, Dec. 9, 2017, in Chicago.

    Chicago Bulls guard David Nwaba dunks against the New York Knicks during the second half of an NBA basketball game, Saturday, Dec. 9, 2017, in Chicago.

The Chicago Bulls' shocking turnaround -- 2 wins in a row this weekend -- can be attributed in part to the return of Nikola Mirotic from injury. Mirotic led the Bulls with 19 points Saturday against New York.

But another spark came from guard David Nwaba, who returned recently after missing a month with a sprained ankle. Nwaba played down the stretch in both victories. He had a personal 7-0 run during the fourth quarter against the Knicks.

Nwaba's best comparison might be Cliff Branch, the former NFL wide receiver known as a deep-threat specialist for the Raiders. Many of Nwaba's baskets come from simply beating the defense down the floor for a fastbreak dunk.

"If we can continue to get him out ahead of the pack, not many people can catch up to him," Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg said.

There's no question Nwaba's athleticism has made an impact with the Bulls.

When Nwaba, Kris Dunn and Lauri Markkanen are on the floor, the Bulls actually resemble that long-stated goal of being younger and more athletic. They might even be interesting to watch when two-time slam dunk champ Zach LaVine returns in a few weeks.

It's worth exploring how Nwaba became a rising star with the Bulls after being drastically overlooked previously in his career. No one could have envisioned an NBA career happening so quickly.

When Nwaba finished his senior season as Cal Poly-San Luis Obispo in 2016, he wasn't drafted, wasn't invited to the NBA pre-draft combine and worked out for no one.

"The plan was to go overseas," Nwaba said. "My stats weren't the best and I knew I wasn't going to get the opportunity to get in the NBA."

Nwaba averaged 12.5 points during his senior season. On the All-Big West team, he made honorable mention. He had the athleticism but no outside shot to speak of. During three years at Cal Poly, Nwaba made just 4 of 24 shots from 3-point range and his team finished with a losing record every year.

So the plan was to play overseas, but after attending several showcases he got only low-priced offers. So he tried out for a couple of D-League teams, joined the Los Angeles D-Fenders and was called up to the Lakers late last season. The Lakers waived him during the summer to clear some cap space, and the Bulls put in a claim.

"Coming from a small school, midmajor, my stats weren't the best," Nwaba said. "People look at those things. Right now, I don't think I have anywhere near the best stats on the (Bulls), but they can see the energy and the little things I bring to the court, whether it's on the stat sheet or not."

Even before college, Nwaba flew under the radar.

He grew up practically walking distance from UCLA, in Santa Monica, but coming out of University High School in Los Angeles his only offer was from Division 2 Hawaii-Pacific. He went there for a year but yearned to play at a higher level, so he came home to play at Santa Monica Junior College for a year.

Nwaba said he didn't play organized basketball until the ninth grade, which might help explain why he was often considered a raw talent. As far as playing wide receiver, Nwaba said he did try football for a year but didn't like getting hit. His parents were born in Nigeria.

"There was nothing tough (in his background) to make me tough or anything like that," Nwaba said. "I honestly don't know where my toughness comes from. It's just who I am, especially on the court. Off the court, I'm a calm, nice guy. But when it comes to being on the court, I just bring a lot of energy and try to bring excitement."

All those circumstances worked well for the Bulls, who might have found a key piece to the rebuild on the waiver wire.

"I'm glad a team appreciates what I can bring," Nwaba said.

• Twitter: @McGrawDHBulls

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