When the Houston Rockets singed David Nwaba to a multi-year contract last offseason, it was thought of as a sort of low-cost gamble. Nwaba was coming off of a dreaded Achilles injury, a potential death-sentence for a player that relies heavily on dynamic athleticism, but the contract was for the vet minimum, and the 2020-2021 year was a team option, which the Rockets opted into this past offseason once Nwaba’s health wasn’t in question.
While the Nwaba move technically happened under former GM Daryl Morey’s watch, current GM Rafael Stone was primarily in charge of uncovering under-the-radar players, and he was responsible for exercising Nwaba’s team option.
Nwaba has responded by rewarding the team’s foresight with the best season of his career. Despite starting nine games, he’s been primarily used as a bench spark, bringing tenacity and energy to Houston’s second unit.
He’s currently averaging 9.3 points per game, the highest mark of his career at the moment, to go along with 3.9 rebounds, 1.2 assists, and an also career-high 1.1 steals per night. He’s been struggling from deep, shooting just 27 percent, but he’s more than made up for it on the defensive end.
In addition to the steals, Nwaba is also sitting right around the top 50 in the entire NBA for defensive RPM at +1.30. His defensive box plus-minus is also a sparkling +1.2, and he holds an individual defensive rating of 106.1, which is better than Anthony Davis (106.2), Paul George (107.5), Myles Turner (106.7), and Giannis Antetokounmpo (106.7). That’s not to suggest that he’s in the same league as those guys as a player, it’s simply to illustrate the impact Nwaba has been having on the defensive end of the floor.
In particular, Nwaba has really stepped it up in recent days, earning some extra playing time with Victor Oladipo on the sidelines. Over the last four contests, Nwaba has averaged 14.8 points, 8.5 rebounds, 1 assist, and 1.5 steals per game on 54 percent shooting from the field. And while it can sometimes be difficult getting a complete picture on a player putting up numbers on a bad team, Nwaba has recently drawn public praise from head coach Stephen Silas for how he’s stepped up during a time of upheaval and injury. Silas said:
“Regardless of what happens, David Nwaba and Sterling Brown are on it as far as playing hard, taking what the defense gives them, not letting adversity get to them.”
He’s put up season highs (and career high ties) in both points (22) and rebounds (11) over the past week and should continue to produce at the very least until Oladipo and Christian Wood both return from injury. He’s also been making a case to keep heavy rotation minutes even when those guys return.
Plus, he does stuff like this:
The sheer athleticism and power from Anthony Edwards' dunk last night reminded me of this slam from David Nwaba against the Pacers- the most underrated dunk of the season so far: pic.twitter.com/oW2uxvQSti— Disney Gary Clark (@Itamar1710) February 20, 2021
One of the fun things about a non-contending team is the player evaluation. Watching guys like Nwaba find a niche after several years in the league in addition to observing youngsters like Jae’Sean Tate and the newly signed Justin Patton, who had three blocks against the Chicago Bulls on Monday.
The rest of this season will be used to develop the players and fine-tune first-year head coach Stephen Silas’s philosophies, and we’ll figure out who exactly has a future with the team as Stone works on rebuilding the franchise after the James Harden trade.
With Nwaba’s contract up at the end of the season and uncertain futures for a plethora of names — including John Wall, Eric Gordon, P.J. Tucker, and Oladipo — if Nwaba continues to provide a sizzling spark off of the bench, he just might play his way into a new deal with the team.