Written by Hayden Gray (@haydenmgray)
When the Houston Rockets signed David Nwaba to a two year deal in June, it was clear that they were taking a low-risk flier on a player who has shown defensive upside even though the achilles tear that he suffered in December of last year posed a threat to the overall longevity of his career moving forward. But all indications are that he will be ready to go for the 2020-21 season, and with Robert Covington out of the mix in the rotation, he should have an opportunity to carve out a role for himself in the rotation. With much of the Rockets’ on-court future in question, Nwaba’s defensive capabilities are one of the few relative certainties moving forward.
One of Nwaba’s most valuable defensive attributes is his versatility. Coming in at 6’5″ with a 7’0″ wingspan, Nwaba is able to not only matchup with guards, but he can also excel against some of the longer wings in the league. This versatility was on full display when he was matched up against Brandon Ingram. In this first clip, Nwaba engages with Ingram on the perimeter. Looking to utilize his three inch height advantage, Ingram elects to drive inside. However, Nwaba does a great job of using his lateral quickness to keep pace with Ingram, and cuts him off as he gets to the middle of the lane. Against most other defenders, Ingram would have been able to use his length to get a less contested shot off, but since Nwaba is quick enough to stay in front of him and get in solid defensive position, he is forced to take a turnaround fadeaway. This play illustrates just how lethal Nwaba’s combination of quickness and length can be on the defensive end.
Also in his matchup with Ingram, Nwaba exhibited the defensive timing and instincts to disrupt the ability for opposing players to finish at the rim. Here, Nwaba first steps over a screen set by Jaxson Hayes so as to not lose Ingram. Getting a slight advantage from the space created by the screen, Ingram wastes no time driving to the rim. However, Nwaba is able to use his speed to make up ground with Ingram and ultimately times his jump perfectly to swat the ball away at the rim. In this play Nwaba exhibits so many different essential defensive tools; the ability to navigate screens, hustle and solid timing. If Nwaba is able to tap into these skills as a Rocket, he will be able to be a solid addition to the defensive rotation.
Nwaba can also use his strength to body up opposing forwards when he has to. Below is a clip of him guarding P.J. Washington. In this play, Washington receives an elbow touch and faces up Nwaba. Being three inches taller and weighing ten pounds more than Nwaba, Washington decides to use his size to get a look at the rim. However, as Washington gathers the ball to make a strong move, Nwaba leans in to the contact and directs Washington’s path away from the basket, making a high-percentage look impossible. Ultimately, Washington bails himself out by passing it off to Biyombo, but the defensive play here by Nwaba is impressive. If this play proves anything it is that Nwaba’s strength empowers him to take on defensive assignments that most players his size may shy away from.
These plays paint the picture of a fundamentally sound defender who is agile, strong and fundamentally sound. If Nwaba can pick up from where he left off before his injury, he can be a key cog in the Rockets’ defense.
Like all players though, Nwaba does have areas where he struggles. While he may excel in taking on longer players who are unable to beat him with their speed, Nwaba can have trouble catching up with guards if they get the help of a screen. In the clip below, Nwaba closes in on Edwards as he receives the ball, as he should. Edwards, noticing Nwaba’s attentive shadowing takes advantage of a screen set by Theis to try to get some space. As the play develops, Nwaba elects to follow Edwards over the screen, as opposed to going under it. This decision ultimately gives Edwards an extra step, leaving the big man in drop coverage to take over for Nwaba’s assignment. In these situations, Nwaba would benefit from changing the way he approaches fighting through the screen, otherwise he has no hope of keeping up with some of the speedier guards in the league.
Nwaba’s trouble with speedier guards is further exhibited in his matchup against Patty Mills. In this instance, Nwaba is in solid defensive position to take on anything that Mills throws at him. However, the threat of a screen by Jakob Poeltl causes him to cheat to the weak side. From there, a simple crossover by Mills creates enough space for him to get to the rim without much resistance from Nwaba. Plays like this starkly illustrate Nwaba’s problems with defending guards, given that Mills is not as fast as he was in his prime. However, if Nwaba can stay disciplined and make better decisions reacting to screens, his long wingspan should be able to help him improve in those situations.
Nwaba still has some minor deficiencies to iron out, but at 27 years old, he has only played 161 games in the NBA. As he gets more in-game experience, he should be able to continue to grow on the defensive end, and become the switchable swiss army knife that the Rockets’ front office hopes he can be.
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