EL SEGUNDO — The premise sounded absurd to Lakers guard David Nwaba, the idea that his life story through his first 24 years would provide enough interesting material for a movie.
Nwaba starred at University High of Los Angeles. But he received no scholarship offers. He transferred from Hawaii Pacific to Santa Monica College to Cal Poly-San Luis Obispo, and led the Mustangs to their first ever NCAA tournament. But Nwaba went undrafted. He joined the Lakers’ Development League affiliate, the D-Fenders, wondering if he would ever fulfill his dream in playing in the NBA. But less than a season later, Nwaba’s dream came true by playing for his hometown team after growing up idolizing Kobe Bryant.
Nwaba even had a crazed Lakers fan that sat behind the basket on the side of the Lakers’ bench and frequently called for him to play. The fan also shouted his name incorrectly as “Nwamamba.” An amused Nwaba heard him and wondered, “I wasn’t sure why he was chanting.”
Still, Nwaba contended “the story doesn’t seem too special” to warrant a script distributed in Hollywood. But he obviously considers the journey traveled to be special. After all, Nwaba believes he is “ahead of schedule” in his hope to crack an NBA roster.
“Initially just being in the D-League, the plan was just to make a summer league roster next year,” Nwaba said. “I’m just pacing myself toward making the summer league roster. I didn’t know how likely it would be to get a call up.”
The Lakers called Nwaba up for a 10-day contract shortly after negotiating a buyout for veteran guard Jose Calderon following the Feb. 23 trade deadline. With the Lakers bound for a failed postseason stint for the fourth consecutive season, they wanted to evaluate a young, emerging player. With the Lakers eventually ranking nearly last in every defensive category, the Lakers wanted a player that could improve those numbers.
The Lakers saw enough to offer Nwaba a second 10-day contract. They also saw enough to sign Nwaba for the remainder of the 2016-17 season and a team option for next season. During that time, Nwaba averaged 6.0 points on 58 percent shooting and 3.2 rebounds in 19.9 minutes through 20 appearances and two starts.
“I’m just happy they gave me the opportunity and having the NBA experience,” Nwaba said. “I know what to look forward to and what I need to do in order to play with the best of them. I’m excited about the offseason and ready to put in a lot of work.”
Nwaba seems accustomed to that role. He had dual responsibilities in early April when the D-Fenders recalled him for their playoff run while also playing for the Lakers. Following the Lakers’ win in San Antonio on April 5, Nwaba made the 3 1/2 hour drive with D-Fenders general manager Nick Mazzella to Hildalgo, Texas for Game 1 of the D-Fenders’ playoff series against Rio Grande Valley the next day. Nwaba then spent the next week switching back and forth between the Lakers and D-Fenders before they lost to the Vipers in three games.
“It was a lot of work. But at the same time, it was a lot of fun just going down and helping out my former teammates get wins,” said Nwaba, who averaged 13.9 points on 64.5 percent shooting and 7.0 rebounds in 29 minutes through 38 games. “I had no issue with that. Of course we didn’t come up with the outcome we wanted. But at the same time it was a lot of fun, especially suiting up for the Lakers as well.”
Nwaba did not always suit up for the Lakers during that time.
After Nwaba logged nearly 40 minutes per game during the D-Fenders’ playoff run, Lakers coach Luke Walton sat Nwaba against Sacramento (April 7) and Minnesota (April 9) for burnout and injury prevention. Nwaba then closed out the Lakers’ 2016-17 season playing 28 minutes against New Orleans (April 11) and 25 minutes against Golden State (April 12).
“It was probably the right decision, a lot of wear and tear on the body,” Nwaba said. “I shouldn’t be playing that much, 40 minutes with the D-Fenders and coming back with the Lakers. But I trust what [Walton] does.”
So it did not seem surprising Lakers president of basketball operations Magic Johnson, general manager Rob Pelinka and Walton told Nwaba in his exit meeting last week to rest for the next 7 to 10 days. After that, though, Nwaba plans to have a full schedule.
Nwaba reported the Lakers liked his defensive presence and mentality. After all, Walton often played Nwaba’s defensive clips during film sessions to the team, something Nwaba called “a great feeling.” Though Nwaba led the Lakers in field-goal percentage (58.0) because of taking shots near the basket, the Lakers also called on Nwaba to improve his jump shot and ball handling.
Nwaba plans to follow through on that both with offseason training and with the Lakers’ Summer League team in July in Las Vegas. With the team option on Nwaba, he is assured of staying with the team through training camp. But the Lakers have high ambitions in upgrading their roster through the NBA draft, trades and free agency. As Nwaba said, “Everything is in my hands with how I continue to work and improve my game in order to make the game.”
“I have to do whatever it takes to remain here, remain a Laker. We’ll see how it goes,” Nwaba said. “I just want to be more confident on the floor as well as and make the team, That’s the first step.”
Then perhaps Nwaba will provide more material that he finds more interesting for an eventual movie.