After stubbornly avoiding a rebuild a year ago, holding white-knuckled to All-Star Jimmy Butler like a toddler with their lifelong comfort blanky, the Chicago Bulls finally actually did get “younger and more athletic” this past summer, if a year late, and the team now looks toward life after the playoffs. It’s a place they appear destined to reside for the foreseeable future as they attempt to rebuild the roster from the ground up, and while things are off to a slow start, the first years of rebuilds never are easy. This particular rebuild is going to be really ugly, though. Fans already are irate with team’s front office, and a dismal year in the league won’t do much to turn those frowns upside down.
It’s going to be a long season, but onward and upward, as they say. The Bulls literally have no other direction to go.
FIVE GUYS THINK…
There isn’t much good to say about the upcoming season for the Chicago Bulls. From the looks of it, their best bet may be to set their sights on the highest possible chance they can secure at winning the draft lottery.
After shipping off star shooting guard Jimmy Butler, and with talks of Dwyane Wade eventually being bought out, the shift to the future has now become the present for a Bulls team that just a few months ago had a 2-0 series lead on the Boston Celtics in the first round of the playoffs.
With all eyes on the return of Zach LaVine and the growth of Lauri Markkanen, the Bulls are thinking long term as they enter this season. With the production results that are likely to follow, it’s probably best if fans do the same as well.
5th place — Central Division
— Dennis Chambers
The Chicago Bulls traded Jimmy Butler and the 16th overall pick in this year’s draft for Kris Dunn, Zach LaVine and the seventh overall pick Thursday night, which was used on Lauri Markkanen. Chicago better hope that Dunn’s rookie season was an aberration, that LaVine makes a full recovery from his ACL tear and that Markkanen can build off of his impressing offseason. The Bulls have finally moved away from their failed strategy of retooling on the fly and seem prepared for an actual rebuild, which is a step in the right direction. But now they need to figure out what to do with Dwyane Wade, who clearly wants to play elsewhere.
5th Place — Central Division
— Jesse Blancarte
The Bulls are the latest reminder that, in the NBA, life comes at you fast. Jimmy Butler, Rajon Rondo and Taj Gibson all find themselves elsewhere, while Dwyane Wade doesn’t seem too far behind. Nikola Mirotic, one of the few bright spots for the franchise, enters mid-September without a new contract and the playoffs seem about as far away from Chicago as sunny South Beach in Miami.
The good news for the Bulls is that they are in possession of all of their first round picks and only currently have one pick debited, which is their 2019 second rounder. In terms of their payroll, the Bulls are one of the few teams that will enter the 2017-18 season with substantial cap room and only currently have $31 million and $8 million in commitments for the 2018-19 and 2019-20 seasons, respectively. Between now and then, the franchise will have to make a number of decisions on some of their young players, but let’s make no mistake about it; this team is in full rebuild mode.
I would go as far as to say that the Bulls may be the Eastern Conference team to experience the most dramatic drop off in win total—last season’s 41-41 campaign is a pipe dream. The best the Bulls can hope for over the next year or two is to lure one or two impact free agents, hitting a home run in the draft and that someone from the current crop—perhaps Kris Dunn, Lauri Markkanen, Zach LaVine or Bobby Portis—can fulfill their potential.
In the Central, it’ll certainly be them pulling up the rear, with the Pacers somewhere near. I favor the Pacers, though, mainly because they have at least four or five pieces that we know will be productive. I’m not sure what Chicago has at this point.
5th Place — Central Division
— Moke Hamilton
This is not going to be fun. Jimmy Butler was traded away for guys who can’t play, either because they are injured or because they just flat-out are not good at basketball, and the team’s only remaining “big name” is Dwyane Wade, a veteran who absolutely does not want to be there. Rookie Lauri Markannen had a promising summer, and Zach LaVine should be a 20+ point-per-game scorer when he finally makes his return from ACL surgery, but outside of that there just isn’t a whole lot to get excited about in Chicago this year. No team looks likely to lose more games than the Bulls.
5th Place — Central Division
— Joel Brigham
The Bulls were only .500 last season, but they could be in for one of the most precipitous year-to-year drops of any team in the league nonetheless. Moving on from Jimmy Butler and clearly emphasizing a rebuild has left this group enormously thin on proven NBA talent, especially with Dwyane Wade expected to be bought out and off the roster in short order. Guys like Zach LaVine, Robin Lopez, Kris Dunn and even newly drafted Lauri Markkanen will be asked to play big roles, and the team will not be expected to do a whole lot of winning. This year is all about seeing which of the young guys fit best and who will be a major part of the core moving forward.
5th place — Central Division
— Ben Dowsett
TOP OF THE LIST
Top Offensive Player: Zach LaVine
Coming off an ACL injury, there still is no definitive return date for the prize jewel of the Jimmy Butler trade, but once LaVine does start suiting up for the Bulls, there won’t be any doubt who the team’s best offensive player is. Before his injury last year, LaVine was having a career season, averaging almost 19 points per game and shooting .387 from deep, and as good as Minnesota is going to be with Butler this year, they will miss LaVine’s ability to space an offense. Conversely, Fred Hoiberg hasn’t had consistent three-point shooters to play with yet in his tenure as Bulls coach, which admittedly has tarnished his “legacy” in Chicago thus far. Adding LaVine and rookie Lauri Markannen should help with that, however dismal the season may be for the team as a whole.
Top Defensive Player: Robin Lopez
Easily much too old and much too good to remain on this team too deep into the season, Lopez will serve as the Bulls’ stalwart in the paint for however much time he spends in Chicago between October and February’s trade deadline. Defensively, he does everything a traditional five is supposed to do—swatting away shots, punishing driving guards, anchoring the defensive rotations in the paint—and it shows in the advanced stats. Chicago gave up 2.3 fewer points per 100 possessions with Lopez on the floor last season. He’s not quick enough to lock down the pick-and-roll, especially when the roller is a nimbler big man, but he still is far and away the best defender the Bulls have. For now.
Top Playmaker: Kris Dunn
The Chicago Bulls don’t really have any playmakers this season. Dwyane Wade would have to be considered the closest thing to that, but he seems likely to be bought out closer to sooner than later, while the point guard corps is as dismal as any team’s in the league. The best hope for a point guard to break out at this point is Dunn, a player who did average over six assists per game as a junior at Providence a couple of years ago. He only averaged 2.1 assists per game as a reserve in Minnesota last season, so asking for a big bump may not be fair, but if he isn’t the one forcing defenses to collapse and finding open shooters, who is?
Top Clutch Player: Dwyane Wade
Someday this will be LaVine, but in the interim it’s hard to bet against the ball going into Wade’s hands when the clock is ticking down. He has hit 15 game winners over the course of his career, and even with his athleticism waning, you can’t teach chilly veins in the clutch. As long as he’s a Bull, he’s taking the last shot.
The Unheralded Player: Paul Zipser
As a former second-round pick, nobody really expected much out of Zipser, but he showed in his rookie season in Chicago that’s he much more valuable than just about anybody expected. His 5.5 points per game average in the regular season doesn’t look like much, until compared to his 7.3 points per game in the playoffs. In fact, when Chicago upset the Boston Celtics for a second straight game in the 2017 NBA Playoffs, Zipser even had a game where he poured in 16 points. He quietly started 18 games last year and should start even more this season, using his scoring ability and deep shot to carve out one of the more understated roles on the team. Goodness knows the Bulls sure could use a sophomore leap from him.
Best New Addition: Zach LaVine
If the Jimmy Butler trade is going to look at all defensible in retrospect, LaVine is going to have to find himself back on the All-Star track he appeared to be on before his injury last year. He’s a Vince Carter-level athlete who should be the Bulls best overall player before the season wraps, unquestionably, in mid-April. Being the Bulls best overall player and being good in the context of the entire league are two entirely different things, however. Chicago needs LaVine to be the latter.
— Joel Brigham
WHO WE LIKE
1. Lauri Markannen
What Markannen has done in EuroBasket this season has gotten sports fans in Chicago about 60 percent as excited as they are for rookie Chicago Bears quarterback Mitchell Trubisky, which really is saying something when we’re talking about 60 percent of infinite enthusiasm. Markannen, whose draft-day photographs are maybe the happiest draft-day photographs in the history of photographs, averaged 22.6 points and 6.2 rebounds in EuroBasket’s group phase, donning #23 in his Finnish team jersey and puttin’ a hurtin’ on defenders from all over the world. He looked great, frankly, somewhat justifying Chicago having picked him ahead of inevitable Rookie of the Year Dennis Smith, Jr. this past June. But we have yet to see how all those skills transfer to the NBA. They didn’t look great at Summer League, but he’ll have plenty of time to adjust. At the very least, it’s heartwarming to see anyone as excited as Markannen is to play for the Chicago Bulls.
2. Bobby Portis
We’ve seen flashes of what Portis can be. Game 1 of the Bulls’ playoff series against Boston last season saw Portis knock down everything in the Garden on his way to 19 points. He can potentially be a double-double guy, even though he tends to either score in double figures or rebound in double figures without doing both on the same night. To say this is a make-or-break year for him would be stating the obvious, but he’s going to get bigger minutes this year. It’s time for him to do something with them.
3. Cristiano Felicio
After getting paid $32 million this past offseason, Felicio had better be ready to make a leap of his own this year. He has averaged just 4.3 points and 4.3 rebounds per game over the course of his first two seasons, but now he is being paid like someone who can do more. He does shoot 57.3 percent from the field and has the ability and strength to improve upon those numbers, especially if Lopez ultimately is traded and Felicio becomes the team’s new full-time center and defensive cornerstone. Not everybody loved the contract, but whatever he’s getting paid, he’s in for a much bigger role this season.
4. The 2018 First-Round Draft Pick
We don’t know who this young man will be, but the dire struggles of the forthcoming season will be swallowed like a bitter pill, with this pick serving as the sweet applesauce into which that pill has been hidden for consumption. For now, Bulls fans still sleep well at night only because visions of Marvin Bagley and Michael Porter, Jr. dance in their heads like sugar plums. All this suffering will be for naught if the result isn’t a franchise-altering draft selection. Thankfully, there are four or five of those coming in the summer of 2018, and the Bulls will end up with one of them.
— Joel Brigham
SALARY CAP 101
The Bulls are in an interesting position in that they’re over the NBA’s $99.1 million salary cap but only have $78.4 million in actual contracts on their books. Restricted free agent Nikola Mirotic takes up $11 million. Chicago also has a trade exception worth $11.5 million for Jimmy Butler, which they partially used to acquire Quincy Pondexter from the New Orleans Pelicans. The Bulls can still get under the cap if they choose, although they cannot rescind their offer to Mirotic without his permission.
Next summer, the Bulls could near $50 million in cap room – although a multi-year deal with Mirotic could subtract from that figure. Chicago can also offer Zach LaVine an extension before the start of the current season. The team also needs to decide on 2018-19 options for Kris Dunn, Cameron Payne, Denzel Washington, Jerian Grant and Bobby Portis, with an October 31 deadline.
— Eric Pincus
Chicago has been an elite defensive team for years at this point. Even two years after Tom Thibodeau left town, Chicago still was among the best in the league last season in team defense despite everything (at least until Taj Gibson was traded), but this is an entirely new team. Chicago’s new lottery pick, Markannen, is as bad defensively as he is gifted offensively, and outside of Dunn, Felicio and Lopez, there just aren’t a lot of players who a.) like playing defense and/or b.) are any good at it. In other words, the team’s greatest strength in years past probably will not be again, which is to say the Bulls probably aren’t going to have a whole lot of strengths this year. They likely no longer are in the league’s basement in terms of three-point shooting, and they seem to put more butts in seats than another team in the league year after year, but outside of that, the only thing that will be strong after this season is the team’s draft pick.
The other side of the coin is quite a bit larger. Point guard is, far and away, the team’s biggest weakness, with Jerian Grant already having proven he’s no more than a reserve NBA guard and Cameron Payne showing his bust inevitability within two practices of having been acquired by Chicago last winter. There are big questions about Dunn, too, and while he’s the team’s only real hope at that position, even he has more than his fair share of shortcomings, especially on the offensive end. This team is incredibly young and devoid of the talent to compete with so many quality NBA teams every night, especially in their division.
THE BURNING QUESTION
Will Chicago Set Dwyane Wade Free?
The Bulls are tanking to land a big fish in the draft next season. Unfortunately, Wade is caught up in this swirling hurricane of awfulness and wants to find his way to a new team as badly as just about any player in the league this side of Carmelo Anthony. Chicago owes him almost $24 million this year, and since nobody is trading $24 million worth of assets to bring in D-Wade on a rental, that means the only way Wade gets his freedom is via buyout. Just about anybody would suffer through just about any job for six months if it paid $24 million, but Wade still has eyes on more playoff-focused teams. Rumblings exist suggesting Chicago will let him go, but why would they pay him all that cash to go play for someone else?
Rest Assured, the 1-16 NBA Playoff Format Is Coming… Kinda
Based on Adam Silver’s comments, it’s safe to assume that the NBA will soon reformat the playoffs.
If there’s one thing Adam Silver has proven in his four years as the NBA’s Commissioner, it’s that he isn’t afraid to do things his way.
And if Silver has his way, the league will eventually figure out how it can implement a system that results in a more balanced playoff system. On Saturday, though, he revealed that it’s probably closer to a reality than many of us realize.
During his annual All-Star media address, Silver admitted that the league will “continue to look at” how they can reformat the playoffs to both ensure a better competitive balance throughout and pave the way for the league’s two best teams to meet up in the NBA Finals, even if both of those two teams happen to be in the same conference.
“You also would like to have a format where your two best teams are ultimately going to meet in the Finals,” the commissioner said on Saturday night.
“You could have a situation where the top two teams in the league are meeting in the conference finals or somewhere else. So we’re going to continue to look at that. It’s still my hope that we’re going to figure out ways.”
Since Silver took over the league, he’s been consistent in implementing dramatic changes to improve the overall quality of the game. Although Silver didn’t take over as the league’s commissioner until 2014, he was instrumental in getting the interested parties to buy into the notion that the “center” designation on the All-Star ballot was obsolete.
As a result, beginning with the 2013 All-Star Game, the Eastern and Western Conference teams have featured three “frontcourt” players, which essentially lumps centers in with forwards and eliminates the requirement that a center appear in the All-Star game. That wasn’t always the case.
From overhauling the league’s scheduling to reducing back-to-back games to implementing draft lottery reform to, this year, eliminating the traditional All-Star format which featured the Eastern Conference versus the Western Conference, it’s become clear that Silver simply “gets it” and isn’t afraid to make revolutionary changes if he deems them to be in the overall best interest of the league.
At this point, everyone realizes that something needs to be done about the league’s current playoff system.
Last season, for example, the Western Conference first round playoff series featured the Houston Rockets and Oklahoma City Thunder squaring off against one another. Only one series—the Los Angeles Clippers versus Utah Jazz—went seven games.
Meanwhile, in the Eastern Conference, the first round series that were contested weren’t exactly compelling.
The Cleveland Cavaliers steamrolled the conference to the tune of a 12-1 run to their third consecutive trip to the NBA Finals. It wasn’t the first time that the public questioned the wisdom behind separating the playoff brackets by conference, but the dominance of the Cavs and LeBron James specifically (who is expected to win the Eastern Conference for the eighth consecutive time this season) has caused renewed scrutiny.
The most common solution offered to this point has been to simply take the 16 best teams across the league, irrespective of conference, and conduct the playoffs as normal.
From afar, this solution seems simple enough, but the obvious concerns are twofold.
First, if the Celtics and Clippers, for example, were pitted against one another in a first round series, the travel would be considerable. Private charter flight or not, traveling is taxing, and the prospect of having to make five cross-country trips over the course of a two-week span would certainly leave the winner of such a series at a competitive disadvantage against the opponents they would face in subsequent rounds, especially if the future opponent enjoyed a playoff series that was contested within close proximity.
Atlanta to New Orleans, for example, is less than a one-hour flight.
Aside from the concerns about geographic proximity, the other obvious issue is competitive balancing of the schedule, which seems to be an easier issue to fix.
Using the Pelicans as an example, of the 82 games they play, 30 are played against the other conference—in this case, the Eastern Conference. The other 52 games would all be played within the conference. If playoff seedings were going to be done on a simple 1-16 basis, the scheduling would have to be realigned in a way to essentially pit all teams against one another evenly. It wouldn’t be fair for a team like the Celtics to be judged on the same standard as the Pelicans if the Celtics faced inferior teams more often.
On Saturday night, Silver revealed that the league’s brass has been thinking about this and is trying to find a solution, and in doing so, he may have tipped his hand.
* * * * * *
As a multinational conglomerate, the NBA values the inclusion of as many markets as possible. Wanting to improve the overall quality of the product, though, there are interests that may not align fully.
What’s obvious with this year’s All-Star game is that the NBA has found a way to balance the two.
Rather than eliminating the conference designations altogether and simply choosing the “best” 24 players to be in the All-Star game, the league still chose All-Stars based on their conference, but then distributed them within the pool to allow for better competition.
That’s exactly what Silver revealed the NBA is considering doing with the playoffs. It makes perfect sense, and it’s probably just a matter of time before it’s implemented.
A report from ESPN notes that the idea that the league is kicking around would essentially do exactly what the league did with the All-Star selections with the playoff teams: choose the best from each conference, then disburse them in a way that allows for competitive balance.
The proposal would have the league’s teams compete as they normally do and would still feature the top eight teams from each conference getting into the playoffs.
Once the teams are qualified, however, they would be re-seeded on a 1-16 basis and crossmatched, on that basis.
It’s not perfect, but compromises never are. The travel issues would still persist, but the league would accomplish two goals: the less dominant conference wouldn’t be underrepresented and discouraged from competing, but the two best teams would still be on opposite ends of the bracket.
An NBA playoffs that featured 11 or 12 teams from the Western Conference would be a ratings nightmare for the league. Eastern Conference cities are less likely to stay up past midnight during the week to watch playoff games, and less competitive markets would frown at the prospect of having to compete against the other conference for a playoff spot. For many small market teams, the millions of dollars generated from a single playoff game often has a significant impact on the team’s operations, so there would naturally be discord.
This system would at least eliminate that contention.
On the positive side, it would allow for the Rockets and Warriors, for example, to meet in the NBA Finals. In both the NFL and MLB, geography hasn’t been a determining factor on which teams battle for the league’s championship.
Why does it have to be in the NBA?
* * * * * *
With the league having begun regular season play earlier this season, at the All-Star break, most teams have played about 57 games. A lot can change over the final 25 games of the season, but if the seeds were frozen today and the league took the top eight teams from each conference and then crossmatched them, the Los Angeles Clippers would be the team that got the short end o the stick.
Although the Clippers have the 16th best record in the league, they would be the ninth-seeded Western Conference team and would thus be eliminated from postseason contention by the Miami HEAT. The HEAT have the 17th best record in the league but are the eighth-best team in the Eastern Conference, so to preserve the conference weight, the HEAT would win out.
This is what the seedings and matchups would look like…
(1) Houston Rockets versus (16) Miami HEAT
(2) Golden State Warriors versus (15) New Orleans Pelicans
(3) Toronto Raptors versus (14) Philadelphia 76ers
(4) Boston Celtics versus (13) Portland Trail Blazers
(5) Cleveland Cavaliers versus (12) Denver Nuggets
(6) San Antonio Spurs versus (11) Oklahoma City Thunder
(7) Minnesota Timberwolves versus (10) Milwaukee Bucks
(8) Washington Wizards versus (9) Indiana Pacers
Here, the Celtics would face the nightmarish scenario of having to travel to and from Portland for their playoff series, while virtually every other series would feature much more friendly travel (especially the Spurs-Thunder and Raptors-Sixers).
The Cavs would have a very tough road to the Finals, having to beat the Nuggets, Celtics and Rockets if the seeds held. The Celtics would have a similarly tough road, as they’d have to get past the Blazers, Cavs and Rockets.
At the end of the day, the Rockets and Warriors would be aligned in such a way as to avoid one another until the championship, but each of the two would face daunting competition. The Rockets would have to go through the HEAT, Wizards and Celtics, while the Warriors would have to face the Pelicans, Timberwolves and Raptors—again, assuming the seeds held.
It would be a benefit to all observers.
One of the unintended consequences of implementing this system would be to make every single game count. If the Celtics were able to move up to the second seed, for example, their road to the Finals, in theory, could become much much easier, comparatively speaking.
The end result would be less resting of players during the course of the season and certainly less instances in which star players take the final week of the regular season off in other to be fresh for the postseason.
No, there’s no perfect solution, but just as the league has found a clever way to serve multiple interests as it relates to the All-Star game’s competitiveness, Silver has revealed that the league is at least considering following suit with the playoffs.
It’s only a matter of time before we see it actually see it happen.
It simply makes too much sense, and if there’s one thing the commissioner has already proven, it’s that he isn’t afraid of changing tradition.
NBA All-Star Saturday Recap
Brian Slingluff recaps All-Star Saturday from Los Angeles.
Basketball Insiders is here to recap an eventful All-Star Saturday that led to three first-time champs in the various skills contests. Let’s get right to it.
Taco Bell Skills Challenge
In Saturday night’s Taco Bell Skills Challenge, the “Bigs” team, boasting 3 All-Stars, set out to claim a third straight title. The competition kicked off with Joel Embiid coming from behind to best Al Horford, and sharpshooter Lauri Markkanen swishing his first 3 point attempt to eliminate Andre Drummond. On the Guard side, Buddy Hield had an early lead before losing out to Spencer Dinwiddie, and Jamal Murray upset hometown favorite Lou Williams.
In the semifinals, Markkanen was able to dispatch Joel Embiid, who struggled with the pass portion of the competition, and Dinwiddie topped Jamal Murray by making his first 3 pointer for the second consecutive round.
In the Final round, Dinwiddie finally missed a 3 pointer, but it did not matter as he finished with a wire to wire victory over Lauri Markkanen. Dinwiddie, competing in front of his friends and family, was able to end the Bigs’ two year win streak in impressive fashion.
JBL Three Point Contest
The event started off with Tobias Harris scoring a solid 18 points. Wayne Ellington was next, sporting the hot new alternate Miami Vice jersey. Ellington started off cold and heated up on his last three racks, ending up with a score of 17. Devin Booker and former three-point champion Klay Thompson tied for a round-high 19 points. Paul George, Bradley Beal, and Kyle Lowry struggled from the start and never found a rhythm, falling short of making the championship round. Defending champion Eric Gordon never got it going, and would not defend the title, scoring only 12 points.
In the Championship round, Tobias Harris was on fire through the first 3 racks, but quickly got cold, scoring 17 points. Devin Booker was next and could not miss, scoring 28 points, leaving Klay Thompson a high number to match. Thompson fell just 3 points short, and Devin Booker was crowned the 2018 JBL Three Point Champion.
Verizon Slam Dunk Contest
The final and most anticipated event of the night started with Donovan Mitchell bringing out a second hoop, bouncing it off the second backboard and finishing with an impressive windmill dunk, scoring a 48. Victor Oladipo followed with a difficult look-away alley oop dunk attempt that he was unable to complete, totaling 31 points from the judges. Dennis Smith Jr. had a nice reverse double pump that got 39 points and Larry Nance Jr., in a throwback Phoenix jersey, payed homage to his father’s cradle dunk, nailing it almost exactly for a score of 44 points.
Oladipo started the next round of dunks by borrowing Chadwick Boseman’s Black Panther mask, and scoring 40 points with a tomahawk windmill dunk. Smith Jr. hit a seemingly impossible reverse 360, through the legs, switching hands dunk for a perfect score of 50. Nance Jr. pulled off a Vince Carter level windmill, nearly missing a perfect score. Mitchell jumped over comedian Kevin Hart to advance to the finals against Larry Nance Jr.
In the Finals, Nance started things off with a windmill alley-oop with some help from Larry Nance Sr., garnering a score of 46. Mitchell completed the difficult one handed alley-oop he had attempted in the previous round, scoring a perfect 50. Nance Jr. answered with an incredible double pass off the backboard dunk, scoring yet another 50 points. Mitchell ended the contest with a Vince Carter tribute dunk, coming out on top by just two points. It capped off an exciting Saturday night, setting things up for the main event on Sunday, Team LeBron versus Team Stephen.
David Nwaba and the Road Less Traveled
David Nwaba speaks to Basketball Insiders about his unconventional path to the NBA.
A player’s path to the NBA usually follows the same formula: A star in high school, a strong college career, and then eventually being selected in the NBA Draft. However, there are times when a player’s path is more unconventional. In the case of David Nwaba, he definitely took the path less traveled.
He attended University High School in West Los Angeles, where he was named All-Western League MVP twice as well as being an all-league selection. He finished his senior year in 2011 putting up 22.0 points per game and 11.5 rebounds per game.
He went to an NCAA Division 2 school, however, Hawaii Pacific University, but never suited up for them as he redshirted his freshman year. He played a year at Santa Monica Community College, where he was the Western State Conference South Division Player of the Year before transferring to Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. According to Nwaba, the decision to leave Hawaii Pacific was made with the NBA in mind.
“It was always a dream of mine, it’s also why I left a Division 2 school that I started at,” Nwaba told Basketball Insiders. “I had bigger dreams of playing D1 and potentially the NBA. So that was a dream of mine. I never thought the journey would go like this but it is how it is.”
Behind Nwaba, Cal Poly made their first-ever NCAA appearance in 2014. They won the Big West Tournament as the seventh seed out of eight teams, and then knocked off Dayton for the right to come in as a No. 16 seed against No. 1 seed Wichita State. Cal Poly would go on to lose to Wichita State, but sparking that run to March Madness put Nwaba on the basketball map.
He didn’t get to the NBA right away, though. His first professional experience came with the then Los Angeles D-Fenders, now South Bay Lakers, the Los Angeles Lakers G-League affiliate. He initially began with the Reno Bighorns, the Sacramento Kings affiliate, but his rights were traded to Los Angeles. His strong play in the G-League was what caught the Lakers’ attention, enough to give him a pair of 10-day contracts, and then one for the rest of the season.
“It was a perfect spot to start up my professional career The G-League is a place to develop your game, and I think I developed a lot,” Nwaba told Basketball Insiders. “I learned a lot about the game, and I think it was a good place for me to start just out of college.”
Although he made a strong impression on the Lakers, Nwaba found out that nothing is ever guaranteed in the NBA. Due to a roster crunch when the team signed Kentavious Caldwell-Pope over the summer, the Lakers ended up cutting him. He didn’t stay unemployed for long though. Before he had a chance to hit the open market, the Chicago Bulls claimed him off waivers.
He’s since carved out a role as one of the Bulls most dependable players in the second unit. And just like his path to the league, his role is a bit of an unconventional one as a shooting guard. He’s shooting 51.7 percent from the field, but most of his shots come from in the paint. He only shoots 26.3 percent from three-point range. It’s been effective for him though.
“It’s just bringing energy off the bench and just being that defender,” Nwaba told Basketball Insiders. “For the most part, I just try to be aggressive going to the basket, finishing at the rim, making the right plays, just defending and playing hard.”
The Chicago Bulls got off to a slow start this season. They lost 17 of their first 20 games. In December, they started to pick up their play, winning 11 of their 20 games including a seven-game win streak. However, they’ve now dropped eight of their last 11 games. Despite that, Nwaba does see some encouraging signs. And in the Eastern Conference, he’s not quite ready to count out another run.
“We’re developing every game, just building chemistry amongst each other,” Nwaba told Basketball Insiders. “Who knows, all it takes is just a streak of eight to ten games or something and we’re already back in the playoff race. You never know, anything can turn around. It’s still a long season, a lot of games to be played, and a lot of time to develop our game. We’ve still got a lot of time with each other.”