LOS ANGELES — The courts at Palms Middle School were uneven. Only some of the baskets had chain nets; others were bare or bent. Blades of grass snuck through cracks in the pavement. Here, growing up a fan of the Los Angeles Lakers, David Nwaba entertained the same fantasy all Angelino kids dream: donning the purple and gold.
The courts at Palms were recently demolished when the district helped fund a renovation. Nwaba's early stomping grounds are nothing but a memory, but the dream lives on.
He's taken an unlikely road from Los Angeles to Hawaii, Santa Monica, San Luis Obispo, Reno and El Segundo to now, a job with the Los Angeles Lakers.
Nwaba spent most of his year playing for the Lakers D-League out fit, the D-Fenders. They boast three D-League All-Stars in Vander Blue, Josh Magette and Justin Harper, but it was the quiet role player Nwaba who got the call-up on Feb. 28, in one of Magic Johnson's first few transactions as Lakers president of basketball operations..
"There weren't too many call-ups," Nwaba said. "I had hope. I was a defensive guy and you don't know what teams are looking for."
This is the same player who red-shirted for a year at Hawaii Pacific University before returning to the Los Angeles area to play a year at Santa Monica College.
"At the time, my confidence was not sky high. I felt like [Hawaii Pacific] was a place to start," Nwaba said, but gradually he believed he could compete at the next level. "It was D-II and I had D-I aspirations."
After three years of Division 1 basketball at Cal Poly, Nwaba was left searching for a destination.
He went undrafted last June, didn't get picked up by an NBA summer league team and didn't get any training camp invites. Overseas offers were tepid.
Searching for an answer, Nwaba tried out for the D-Fenders and Reno Bighorns in the D-League.
"What immediately stood out to me was his motor, his athleticism, his defensive quickness and overall effort," D-Fenders general manager Nick Mazzella said.
Reno was awarded his rights, about a week before the draft, but on Oct. 30, the D-Fenders swung a trade with the Bighorns to bring Nwaba into the fold.
To Nwaba, the D-Fenders were his home. The Lakers were a distant hope.
"I was considering coming back to [the D-Fenders] next year. The summer was going to be complete work on my game," Nwaba said. "I knew that if I was eventually going to be able to make it ... it was going to be a process."
Nwaba quietly went about his business, doing the often-unappreciated work of playing D-League defense, occasionally lighting up the crowd at the Lakers' El Segundo practice facility (home to the D-Fenders) with a highlight dunk.
"Before we knew it, David was becoming a 20/10 player while leading all guards in the league in field-goal percentage," Mazzella said. "His offensive and defensive ratings were off the charts and he wasn't making mistakes on the court. When a roster spot opened for the Lakers after the trade deadline, the organization as a group felt it was time to see what he could do at the NBA level."
Back in February, D-Fenders coach Coby Karl called Nwaba to tell him of the promotion opportunity.
"I was like, 'Oh, maybe he really just wants me to work the Boys & Girls Club' because I was told about it earlier,” Nwaba said to Harrison Faigen of Silver Screen and Roll. "A lot of things were floating through my head like being traded, but the call-up didn't really cross my mind.”
When Nwaba's second $31,969 10-day contract expired, the Lakers gave him a $1.4 million contract through the 2017-18 season. The team has until late June to pick up Nwaba's option for next year.
Once again, the 6'4" guard must earn his keep, but he's made a strong impression on Lakers coach Luke Walton.
"He's been great," Walton said after Nwaba helped the Lakers upend the Spurs in San Antonio last Wednesday. "Watching the film on the way home from the game ... was one of the most enjoyable films I've seen all year from our guys because of the way they were defending and that started with David.
"It doesn't seem like he cares about anything but winning and playing defense really," he continued, noting Nwaba is also finding ways to contribute on offense both off cuts and in transition.
Through 18 games, Nwaba is the high man on the Lakers in field-goal percentage at 56.5 percent but humbly explained away the fact that he's leading an NBA franchise in shooting efficiency.
"Guys take tougher shots and opposing teams don't worry too much about me," Nwaba said. "I've been taking some close shots to the basket and taking the open ones. ... I take what's given. Scoring is never going to be easy."
In the NBA, the big-time point producers get most of the attention, but coaches understand the value of role players. Walton himself made a career passing the ball to the likes of Kobe Bryant, Shaquille O'Neal and Pau Gasol.
"[Nwaba is] getting more comfortable offensively, but he's so committed to what he's doing on the defensive end for us that it's really clear to see what the game is like when he's out there and when he's not," Walton said.
Confronted with his coach's kind words, Nwaba couldn't help but smile.
"It means a lot that he believes in what I bring to the team," he said.
Karl believes Nwaba has the right temperament to play in the NBA.
"What makes him special is his humility and his willingness to play hard," Karl said. "Those two things set the table for him to be a really good pro. He came in as a tryout guy, never said a word, just played hard. ... He never wants to take the credit. I think it's a special thing, especially in this day and age."
What's the key to his unlikely success?
"I just make use of every opportunity given to me," Nwaba said. "As long as I had a job, I was fine with it."
Nwaba still has to earn a spot on next year's roster, but the team would be wise to keep its minimum investment in a player who works as hard as he does on the defensive end.
And while Nwaba has a side career of downplaying his own accomplishments, he is willing to admit to one thing.
"I'm enjoying every second of it," he said.
Lakers Insider Notebook
Lakers Tanking Their Tank Chase
Once it became clear the Lakers were not a playoff team, the focus shifted to May's NBA draft lottery. Walton sat veterans Timofey Mozgov, Luol Deng and Nick Young. The team traded high-scorer Lou Williams to the Houston Rockets.
The Lakers need a top-three pick in the draft, otherwise their selection will convey to the Philadelphia 76ers. Should the team keeps its selection, it will send an unprotected 2018 first instead.
With two first-rounders in the balance, losing should be paramount to the Lakers.
Walton doesn't agree.
"We're not going to tell our guys to go out there and lose," he said. "That's not what sports is about. That's not how any of these guys got here. It's not right. It's the players' job ... to play as hard as they can, to try and win every game they can."
To that end, the Lakers (25-55) have won four straight games for the first time since the 2012-13 season. The Brooklyn Nets (20-61) and Phoenix Suns (24-57) will finish ahead in the lottery standings, dropping the Lakers' top-three odds to 46.9 percent.
Should the Suns win their final game of the season on Tuesday against the Kings (31-49) and the Lakers lose their final two battles, the Lakers and Suns will finish tied, both with a 51.4 percent chance at a top-three pick.
In late February, co-owner Jeanie Buss relieved her brother Jim Buss, formerly the Lakers' president of basketball operations, and general manager Mitch Kupchak of their duties.
Johnson and Rob Pelinka were hired in their steads, respectively.
On Thursday, the team's front office underwent another shake-up with assistant general manager Glenn Carraro resigning.
Carraro spent the last 17 years with the Lakers, serving a Kupchak's salary cap expert.
Johnson and Pelinka are not only evaluating the team's roster but also its front office personnel.
The pair will certainly make additional changes. For now, it's unclear how they'll replace Carraro, but director of player personnel Ryan West could be a candidate.
Co-owner Jesse Buss currently holds the titles of assistant general manager and director of scouting.
World Peace on the Court
D'Angelo Russell was emotional on Sunday night after hitting a buzzer-beater to beat the Minnesota Timberwolves 110-109. Russell had learned earlier in the day that his grandmother passed away.
After the shot, he ran into the crowd to be with his family.
Moments before Russell's game-winner, Metta World Peace had a chance to be the hero, but his corner three didn't drop. Julius Randle's offensive rebound set up Russell's heroics.
"I wanted to shoot a three to end the game, but I wasn't sure if I was behind the line, so my legs started shaking like a dog because I didn't know where it was," World Peace said. "Then D-Lo made a big shot."
The 37-year-old World Peace has gotten court time down the stretch of what may be his final NBA season.
"Metta's been so good for us all year, that if I get an opportunity to reward him with playing time, especially this late in the season, I'm going to try to find him some minutes," Walton said.
Given that World Peace has barely played all year (125 minutes total), his contribution must come in different ways.
"In practice, in mentorship, the way he prepares," Walton said. "The way he approaches this job from a professional standpoint, the way that he eats, the way he trains, everything that he does when you have a team full of 19- and 20-year-olds, is a great example. He never complains, just works his tail off and every time he has a chance to teach one of the young guys, he does."
World Peace has played 17 seasons in the NBA. His three-pointer late in Game 7 of the 2010 NBA Finals helped the Lakers defeat the Boston Celtics for the franchise's 16th title.