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David Nwaba’s defensive versatility is what the Pacers need in a role player

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Nwaba would give the Pacers back some of the defensive edge they exchanged for scoring.

NBA: Preseason-Detroit Pistons at Cleveland Cavaliers Mike Carter-USA TODAY Sports

With three standard roster spots left to fill, the Pacers might want to consider circling back to the 6-foot-4, 219-pound bruising, shooting guard who piqued their interest — but, ultimately turned them down — last summer.

“Indiana wanted me for two years, but Cleveland seemed like a better fit,” free agent swingman David Nwaba said at the time, per Chris Fedor of Cleveland.com. “Young guys as well as veterans on this team, so I thought it was a perfect fit and knew I was going to get my opportunity here.”

A year later, and if both sides were interested in returning to the bargaining table, Nwaba’s opportunity would most likely come in the form of providing tough-minded, portable resistance off the bench in the wake of moving on from major defensive contributors Cory Joseph and Thaddeus Young. Jeremy Lamb set a career-high in steals last season and is an improving team-defender, and T.J. Warren’s flaws are more likely to be masked in an airtight defensive system, but neither of them is the pest that Joseph was, nor the battering ram that Young served as.

Nwaba is somewhat of a mash-up of the two, a play-hard defender with mobility as well as brute strength, though with less size than Young and more than Joseph.

According to Krishna Narsu’s data, only 24 players in the league last season defended a wider range of positions than the undrafted product out of Cal Poly, who spent nearly the same percentage of his defensive possessions against ones and twos (41.4 percent) as he did threes and fours (50.3). Per the NBA’s match-up stats, genetically-gifted power forwards and top-flight swingmen took the brunt of his physicality, with Ben Simmons, LeBron James, Aaron Gordon, Jimmy Butler, and Jaylen Brown all ranking among his 10-most frequent assignments during the regular season. Among those names, only James and Butler registered a field goal percentage above 35 percent from the field with Nwaba as the nearest defender, and the group as a whole shot a tepid 19-of-47 (40 percent) on 175 possessions.

The size of that sample is small with knee and ankle injuries limiting the 26-year-old to only 51 games played, but it is nonetheless substantive.

Some of his best work of the season on that end of the floor came against the league’s leading scorer. Like a hot, itchy sweater, James Harden rarely had a moment where he wasn’t actively sensing Nwaba’s presence, even sometimes to the point of being bothered the full-length of the floor with tiny, intermittent jabs:

Pulling out all of the stops (pun!), the gritty competitor retreated and intercepted an air-balloon to Clint Capela, and he made it his purpose to stay connected to the herky-jerky maestro’s hip. On this particular stand, the snake became the charmer when Nwaba essentially gave Harden an open path to the basket to force him to score from two instead of three and ended up knocking the ball loose:

By the end of the night, Harden had scored 40 points, but he shot 4-of-15 with six turnovers on the 50 possessions he was defended by Nwaba.

Against fours, the energizer’s shorter stature almost works to his favor in some cases. For instance, by all means, be willing to live with Aaron Gordon hunting this mismatch only to come up with one of his clunky post fadeaways:

Or, how about this possession against Khris Middleton, where he forced the All-Star into taking a long, contested two from the baseline. On top of holding his spot and pushing Middleton away from the basket, what Nwaba shows here is his discipline to commit to being the second jumper, so as to keep Milwaukee’s secondary-scoring option off the line.

On a situational basis, a Brogdon-Oladipo-Nwaba triad in hybrid lineups would be nasty on defense. Brogdon defended Kawhi as best as can be expected in the playoffs (16-of-45, 36 percent shooting), but keeping smaller guards in front of him is a different matter. That was a job for Eric Bledsoe. Oladipo, meanwhile, thrives roaming the entire floor. With two stout defenders flanking him in spot minutes or against teams with multiple “best” players, Indiana’s two-time All-Star would have more freedom to buzz around for steals like a hummingbird in search of nectar instead of tiring out chasing around point guards.

Offensively, Nwaba is like a bowling ball, taking matters into his own hands and rumbling his way down the floor out on the break. Shooting 59.5 percent inside five-feet, Nwaba’s conversion rate from that particular distance dipped while dealing with an array of nagging injuries last season; and yet, he was still at league-average. He also exchanged some of those interior shots for threes, which he knocked down at a worse clip (32 percent down from 34 percent) on higher — but still low — per game volume (1.5 up from 0.7).

Perhaps more than anything, though, he just exudes urgency. While on the floor, Nwaba grabbed 3.9 percent of Cleveland’s misses — one of the highest rates in the league among guards who played at least 50 games — and he shot an absurd 68 percent on putbacks, per Synergy. He very easily could’ve given up on this play against Dallas when he failed to get the ball up and over the rim, but instead he stuck with it and used his quick ups to give his team a one-point lead.

That’s David Nwaba.

He isn’t as durable as either Joseph or Young, and his modest development from a non-shooting shooting guard into a sometimes-shooting wing could make for some challenging in-game lineup gymnastics in terms of choosing between defense and offense, but he would give the Pacers someone in their back-pocket for certain match-ups who has the potential to develop into being comparably sturdy.

Per Jeff Siegel of Early Bird Rights, the Pacers currently have $5.5 million in cap space, plus the $4.8 million room exception, which can only be used to sign players for up to two years.

According to Spencer Davies of Basketball Insiders, Nwaba is reportedly seeking a multi-year deal after signing last season with the Cavs under the understanding that the qualifying offer wouldn’t be in his plans for this summer.