The Bulls’ offense was a mess on Sunday afternoon, again searching for and failing to find a rhythm or any consistency without Kris Dunn. They did, however, make 12 more 3-pointers and add to their franchise record-breaking pace for triples in a season. Eight of 10 Bulls who played meaningful minutes attempted a 3-pointer. The two who didn’t? Center Robin Lopez, who has attempted 13 3-pointers in 677 career games. The other? David Nwaba, the shooting guard who’s doing everything right for the Bulls except, well, shoot.
It’s probably not fair to label Nwaba a true shooting guard. Though Basketball Reference says the 6-foot-4 NFL linebacker look-a-like has played 93 percent of his minutes at the position, he’s often strategically placed with two wings capable of shooting, plus reserve forwards Nikola Mirotic and Bobby Portis. So he’s really at “the 2” in name only. In an offense that has grown and depended more on the 3-pointer than ever before, Nwaba is bucking that trend … yet still finding significant minutes.
He’s taken just 17 3-pointers all year, and 11 of those came before Christmas — on Nov. 11 James Harden attempted 17 in a single game, to put that number in perspective. Of players averaging at least 20 minutes per game, only Ben Simmons has attempted fewer 3-pointers per game among guards. In fact, 34 centers have attempted more 3-pointers than Nwaba.
Since Dec. 31, in 310 minutes, Nwaba has attempted three 3-pointers. That’s fewer than Andre Drummond’s four attempts in the same span and as many as rookie Heat center Bam Adebayo, who hasn’t made a 3-pointer all year (and didn’t make one at Kentucky, either).
It’s a trend Nwaba has followed going back to his college days. He made four, count them, four 3-pointers in three seasons at Cal Poly. Last year in the D-League he made four 3-pointers on 17 attempts in 1,150 minutes. When the Lakers called him up for the last 20 games of the year he attempted five 3-pointers in almost 400 minutes. You get the picture.
But Nwaba has taken it a step further. Not only is he avoiding 3-pointers, he’s avoiding the midrange too. In addition to the 17 3-pointers he’s attempted, only two others have been jumpers. The rest of Nwaba’s 163 field-goal attempts have come in the paint. The bulldozer is either passing, setting a screen or going toward the basket on a drive, drawing a foul on 10.5 percent of those drives, the highest mark among Bulls guards.
“David knows who he is, and he’s not going to try to play outside that. He’s a guy that understands he’s at his best when he’s attacking the basket,” Hoiberg said. “We need David in attack mode.”
Nwaba draws contact and also finishes well at the basket, shooting 60.7 percent from 5 feet and in — also best among Bulls guards. He’s shooting 54 percent on 5.1 attempts per game. He’s also helping the Bulls push the pace, with Hoiberg joking that when the Bulls’ top rebounding guard (4.5 per game) grabs a board the other four “need to run with him” better.
“You have to be aggressive going to the basket, so it’s important that I play off my teammates,” Nwaba said. “That’s what I like to bring: looking to score in transition, bringing energy and going to the basket.”
But with no real outside shot to speak of, good decision making and finishing at the rim alone can’t justify 22.7 minutes per game. Hoiberg’s Bulls have five players averaging 4.7 3-point attempts per game. In Hoiberg’s first two seasons only Nikola Mirotic eclipsed that mark. It’s clear 3-pointers are valued in this system, and Nwaba doesn’t bring even a threat from the outside — he’s made 6 of those 22 career 3-pointers. So where are these minutes earned?
“David’s the most versatile defender we have on our team,” Hoiberg said. “Whether he’s shooting the ball or not, whether he’s making shots or not, he’s still going to have a positive impact on the game. First and foremost because of his effort, which is a skill, to go out and play with that type of effort. And the other thing is defensively he’s always going to go out and battle.”
Added Denzel Valentine, who’s played more on the second unit with Nwaba since Zach LaVine returned: “He’s physical, he knows how to push the pace on offense and he’s a good energy guy. He gets you amped up to play.”
The numbers on Nwaba’s defense do him justice. Entering Sunday’s game against the Bucks his 103.4 defensive rating was the best on the team by 2.5 points (a considerable margin, for you non-statheads). The Bulls defense is more than five points per 100 possessions better with him on the floor (also a considerable margin).
And if it feels like Nwaba never stops moving, it’s because he doesn’t. Of players averaging at least 22 minutes per game, Nwaba’s average defensive speed is 4.38 miles per hour, third fastest in the NBA. He trails only OKC’s Andre Roberson, a candidate for the NBA’s All-Defensive Team, and Indiana’s Cory Joseph. His overall average speed is seventh in the league. Hustle and energy can be dubbed clichés, but it’s exactly what Nwaba brings.
“It’s just important that I bring energy when I get out there,” he said, “and do what I do on the defensive end and try to get stops as best as I can.”
There’s another overused cliché about apt defenders being able to defend all five positions: Nwaba does it in one game.
He followed Giannis Antetokounmpo to the scorer’s table late in the first quarter Sunday, and mirrored his minutes for most of his 16 minutes — he would have played more, but the Bulls were lacking for offense and trailing most of the afternoon. He saw time on Eric Bledsoe, helping weak side on an Antetokounmpo drive and blocking the All Star’s attempt off the glass. He also ripped the ball away from Bledsoe in transition that led to a Bulls transition opportunity. He also guarded wing Khris Middleton in the first half, rounding out his well-balanced coverage.
Antetokounmpo got the best of Nwaba — like he does most defenders — for a pair of buckets in the second half, including a tense back-and-forth on the block. The two hammered each other three times before Antetokounmpo faded away and hit a jumper as the shot clock expired. Nwaba had fared well in the first two contests, and the fact that Hoiberg allowed the 25-year-old a third chance to limit a 28 point-per-game scorer speaks volumes.
“Trying to do the little things to help my team win, and if it means guarding their best guy I’ll do the best that I can and try to get stops,” Nwaba said. “Defense is what I like to do. I’m trying to get stops.”
So while 3-pointers continue to gain relevance and almost become a non-starter for gaining relevance in the NBA, Nwaba is going to continue doing what he wants. And nothing else. He’s a restrictive free agent at season’s end, and some team — perhaps the Bulls — will take a chance on the shooting guard who won’t shoot. He’s the kind of player every championship team needs. He might never top 20 points in a game, but somewhere down the line he’s going to cause a 30-point scorer to go for an inefficient 22, and it’s going to win his team a quarter, a game or even a playoff series.
“We love David and hope he’s here for a long time,” Hoiberg said before Friday’s Lakers game. Nwaba had eight points and five rebounds (and no threes) against his former team. “There’s just not a lot of guys that have that defensive versatility.”