Sometimes the quietest decisions make the loudest noise. Two years ago, as the pandemic rated, Andrew Nembhard sat in his suburban Ontario home and thought about his future. He did not need to do anything about it. His future beamed bright already. In two seasons at Florida, he already had become a critical piece in the Gator machine, starting every game, averaging 30 minutes-plus. There was no reason to worry, less of a reason to change.
Except Nembhard wanted more. This is what fans of the Indiana Pacers, who selected Nembhard 31st, need to understand about their new guard. He does not do satisfied. Gifted a hefty dose of silver spoon basketball — courtesy of his father, Claude, a grassroots hoops guru in Canada — Nembhard never looked for the easy way. Rather than star comfortably at home, he relocated to Florida for his final two seasons of high school, upping the ante on competition at Montverde Academy. Playing alongside RJ Barrett, Nembhard helped Montverde to a national championship and parlayed that into an immediate starting spot at Florida.
But just as he was about to glide into the comfortable spot of upperclassman-ship, he pivoted again. This was before the NCAA opened up the transfer portal with immediate eligibility. Leaving Florida likely meant a sit-out year. Nembhard left anyway, landing at Gonzaga, where he believed a quick-twitch offense would suit him more, and a year in residency would only improve his game. “This was always about getting better,” Nembhard said at the time of his switch. “I wanted to take a step back and focus on myself. Gonzaga is a great opportunity to do that.” When the NCAA instead granted him a surprise immediate-eligibility waiver, Nembhard stepped onto a loaded team that already had Jalen Suggs ready to handle the offense. Nembhard, a would-be starter at Florida, contentedly turned into an exceptionally effective Zags’ sixth man.
He took over when Gonzaga needed him — he scored 17 and dished eight assists in a Sweet 16 game against Creighton — but never foisted himself into the offense. “He’s not a guy who’s going to go out and hunt shots,” Gonzaga coach Mark Few said. “Sometimes, actually, we need him to be more aggressive.”
A year later — after Suggs, Corey Kispert and Joel Ayayi moved on — Gonzaga needed Nembhard to take center stage as a veteran player on an unusually young Zags team. So he did. Nembhard upped his production to suit his team’s needs, going from 9.2 points to 11.8, 4.4 assists to 5.8, and bettering his outside shooting from 32 percent to 38, despite taking far more 3s in his second season. He also boasted a gaudy 2.97 assist-to-turnover ratio.
It’s that willingness to adapt that will serve Nembhard best as a pro. He will come to Indiana not as a star or a starter, but as a player looking to plug the holes that need plugging. He will be just fine with it. “He’s had everything thrown at him, and he handles it at his own pace,” Gonzaga assistant Brian Michaelson said. “He can do anything you need.”
Though Chet Holmgren and Drew Timme absorbed much of the attention, it was Nembhard who made the Zags run. As his instincts suggested when he eyed the transfer, he suited the offense there perfectly. Blessed with a high basketball IQ, he excelled in Gonzaga’s heavy pick-and-roll/ball-screen system, rarely making the wrong read and showing a critical ability to read a defense and patiently wait for a play to open up.
Per Synergy Sports, he averaged 1,014 points per possession in pick-and-roll situations, feasting on the chance to feed both Holmgren and Timme. At the Combine, he proved his skill set was transferable without the two Gonzaga bigs. In the second game in Chicago, Nembhard turned plenty of heads when he not only dropped 26 points but handed out 11 assists.
That’s arguably what turned NBA execs heads, as Nembard moves on to a very heavy pick-and-roll NBA. But as the Pacers soon will find out, that’s not necessarily his best asset. “Andrew, ” his father says,“ he always wants a challenge. ”
(Photo: Troy Wayrynen / USA Today)