David Nwaba

Shams: Bulls guard David Nwaba will be a highly sought after free agent this summer

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USA TODAY

Shams: Bulls guard David Nwaba will be a highly sought after free agent this summer

The Bulls value David Nwaba, and apparently a host of other teams do, too.

The news isn't earth-shattering by any means, as it was expected the 25-year-old Nwaba would garner interest in free agency. The second year pro averaged 7.9 points, 4.7 rebounds and 1.5 assists in 70 games for the Bulls, and his hounding defense and ability and desire to defend the opponent's best perimeter player only increased his value.

The Bulls clearly value Nwaba and his numbers after the All-Star break reflected that: he averaged 9.9 points and 5.4 rebounds in 27.1 minutes, and he shot 13 of 33 from beyond the arc (after shooting 5-for-19 in his first 45 games), showing some progress in the expansion of his game.

Perhaps working in the Bulls' favor is that Nwaba's new agent, Briscoe, also represents Bulls guard Justin Holiday and G-League forward Jarell Eddie. That won't be a deciding factor if Nwaba signs an offer sheet with another team and the Bulls are required to match it or not, but if the Bulls do negotiate with Briscoe and Nwaba it should help.

The Bulls will enter this summer with ample cap space to sign Nwaba or match any offer that comes his way. But every player has a price and the Bulls will have to decide what Nwaba's is should he receive and sign an offer sheet from another team.

John Paxson delivered transparency, not Brazilian music

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USA TODAY

John Paxson delivered transparency, not Brazilian music

It’s what every fan base deserves, along with players on a roster where tough conversations must be had to set a course for the present in order to secure a better future.

Transparency.

It’s ugly and while not aesthetically pleasing to the eye, everyone can see what the Bulls are doing for the remainder of the NBA season. For the paying customers who still fill the seats at the United Center, it’s a “cry now so hopefully you laugh later” proposition.

Bulls Executive-Vice President John Paxson addressed the media Tuesday and said what we all knew to be true, what everyone knew what was coming.

He didn’t stand up in front of cameras and tape recorders and ask, “Do you like Brazilian music?”

They’re tanking.

They’re putting a little bit more sugar to go with it but it’s old-fashioned ‘tussin for the next several weeks.

All of this is due to sight unseen—unless you watch college basketball or cue up European basketball highlights.

When you see Michigan State’s Jaren Jackson take two hard dribbles from the top of the key, spin and dunk while being fouled, it makes sense.

When Arizona’s DeAndre Ayton help on a driving guard to cut off a lane, recover to block a 3-point shot and run the floor for a layup in a six-second span, it makes sense.

When Duke’s Marvin Bagley III seals his defender with one arm, catches with his left hand and finishes on the opposite side of the rim with ease, it all makes sense and kudos to the Bulls for not trying to fool a smart public with useless rhetoric.

Every loss counts, of course, but the key thing about the NBA is this: No matter where a team picks, bad franchises make the worst of a good opportunity and good franchises make the best of any situation.

If the Bulls are the latter, it’ll show itself whether they pick fourth or second or sixth. This draft’s best player went 13th, Donovan Mitchell from the Utah Jazz. Lauri Markkanen is in competition for best player after Mitchell and he went seventh.

This was inevitable from the moment the Bulls traded Jimmy Butler on draft night. Although Kris Dunn has turned out to be a revelation and Markkanen could be a superstar, none of the micro wins should take away from the macro vision of this franchise, chief reason why Paxson has reasserted himself in the last year.

Paxson just framed it in the vein of long-term evaluation in announcing Cristiano Felicio and David Nwaba will replace veterans Robin Lopez and Justin Holiday in the starting lineup, while Jerian Grant will see his playing time cut for Cameron Payne.

“Seeing some of our young guys play consistently, we’ve learned a lot about them,” Paxson said. “The hard thing when you do things like this is you’re asking certain people to sacrifice roles and minutes. And oftentimes, it’s veteran guys. That’s what we’re asking some of our vets to do right now—sacrifice some time on the floor and roles they’ve been very good in. That’s never an easy thing.”

Lopez and Holiday have been good soldiers through this process, especially helping navigate a fragile locker room after the crazy start to the season when Bobby Portis had enough of Nikola Mirotic in a practice and unleashed holy hell on a season that was supposed to be a quiet, boring losing season.

“I know what it’s like to be asked to take a lesser role,” Paxson said. “Players have pride. So it’s hard. I don’t take that lightly at all. It’s just the position we’re in as a young team, 20-37 with a lot of young guys and several who we haven’t really had the chance to see play much this year. For us to make the proper evaluation in terms of who fits us moving forward, this is something we have to do.”

Lopez has had a solid season, with career-highs in scoring and assists. Holiday’s scoring has nearly doubled this season and he’ll garner some attention around the draft in the trade market.

But with the Bulls being eighth of the eight bad teams, they need to get Super Bad (with a nod to James Brown) in the next several weeks. It’s not that the rebuild is steps ahead, it’s that other teams are better at being incompetent than the Bulls—and they’ll also be doing whatever’s necessary to secure a draft position.

At least the Bulls’ competence has come in the form of long-term answers. Certainly at the end of the year, one can lament Zach LaVine saving the Bulls from losses to the Timberwolves and Magic with late-game plays that cements the belief he could be a front-facing player—especially with restricted free agency coming this summer.

If Payne happens to be a useful NBA player in the process, it’s gravy but the Bulls aren’t really expecting it.

Fred Hoiberg has been pumping up Payne publicly by referencing him playing the role of Isaiah Thomas in the playoff preparation last spring, but he hasn’t played NBA level basketball in over a year.

And when he was on the floor, for that ill-fated period after last year’s deadline when Hoiberg was playing 11 guys without a real plan to win, Payne looked overmatched and overwhelmed.

“We want to see him as a point guard, especially when you’re running with the second unit, and the way Fred wants to play, play with pace, defend your position, compete every night and stay within yourself,” Paxson said. “His role is to get us into offense quickly and efficiently and make the right play with the ball.”

Felicio has taken a step back in terms of his development after steady improvement over the last two years, but in the big picture they’re casualties in the NBA’s cost of doing business.

And if you believe it’s anything else besides what you’re seeing, you might believe Paxson is truly asking if you like Brazilian music.

How David Nwaba, the shooting guard who doesn't shoot, is thriving with the Bulls

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USA TODAY

How David Nwaba, the shooting guard who doesn't shoot, is thriving with the Bulls

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.”