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David Nwaba, the Nets’ quietest free-agency signing, could become their Marcus Smart

2019-10-01

“It’s all about pride, man.”

It’s Nets Media Day, and I’ve got some time to pick David Nwaba’s brain about defense. Brooklyn made splashes in free agency, signing Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving and DeAndre Jordan over the summer, but they also signed Nwaba — a gritty, two-way, multi-positional player — to a one-year deal.

“It’s pride,” he continues. “I don’t want anyone to score on me, ever. It’s a challenge I pride myself on stepping up and taking every day.”

He’s 6'4 but the tweener plays six inches taller. What lacks in height, he makes up in hubris. Nwaba has bounced around the league for each of the past three seasons, spending 20 games as a rookie on the Lakers before his toughness and edge earned him a spot on the Bulls. Then he spent last season on the Cavaliers.

“I had some injuries and it kept me out of some games, so I knew it was gonna affect my free agency,” Nwaba told the Daily News about his time in Cleveland. “Brooklyn was one of the teams to reach out to me. Just being a part of a winning culture. I’ve been a part of losing teams, so just to be a part of a team that made it to the playoffs. I wanted to be a part of that — guys that go out there and compete hard every day.”

Brooklyn has filled many holes on its roster, but energy players are irreplaceable. The Nets had hoped Treveon Graham would be their 3-and-D stopper last season, but after shooting 41 percent from deep in Charlotte, Graham laid a donut: a sub-30 percent shooting season on a Brooklyn team that desperately needed a stretch four.

Nwaba projects to fill that void in spurts. He could emerge as Brooklyn’s Marcus Smart, at least on the defensive end: A player willing to lay it all on the line, stepping up to every challenge opposing teams throw at him.

“It’s all about making winning plays,” he told The Daily News. “Diving for loose balls, taking charges. The ugly plays win games.”

It’s not just talk. Nets head coach Kenny Atkinson said Nwaba’s impact was felt on Day 1 of training camp.

“We felt him defensively today,” Atkinson said. “Everyone felt him in the gym, and that’s how you make a mark in as a role player in this league. We all saw that today, that he can add that element. It’s important.”

Atkinson hedged on the Marcus Smart comparison, calling it unfair, and it’s true: Smart isn’t just a valuable asset to Boston because of his toughness on defense. He can make plays for his teammates, too. That’s not Nwaba’s calling card — at least not yet.

But what is his calling card is defending virtually every position. He sticks with guards as easily as he checks forwards. Expect Nwaba to see minutes as a small-ball four, too, in minutes Taurean Prince doesn’t find himself in the game.

“He has excellent defensive instincts, and he’s strong as heck,” Atkinson continued. “He’s middle linebacker-ish. He’s tough.”

He’ll have to be. Prince has already stepped up and claimed Brooklyn’s role as the defensive stopper — a role he didn’t know Aktinson had handed him, but one he said he would have demanded anyway. Prince can’t play all 48 minutes however, and he certainly can’t defend five players on the floor at one time.

Nwaba said Atkinson called him “an underrated shooter,” and he’s been working on his three-point shot — a must to stay on the floor in today’s NBA, let alone on a Nets team that averaged more threes than any team other than Houston last season. He knows that on a team with playmakers like Irving, Spencer Dinwiddie and Caris LeVert, shots will be made available. He just has to knock them down.

“Being on a team with a coach that believes in you makes the game way easier,” he said. “I’m excited about whatever opportunity I get at any position. I have no issue guarding bigger guys.”

But more than anything, Nwaba knows his role on this team is to make the hustle plays that separate good teams from elite teams. That’s how Smart carved his role in this league: taking charges and putting his body on the line while honing the other parts of his game.

Nwaba might not be a carbon copy of Smart, but they just might be cut from the same cloth. He’s the type of player who can make an impact, even if he’s not on the floor very long.