Gonzaga’s versatility, depth and talent level improved two days before its season opener against Kansas.
Andrew Nembhard, a transfer from Florida, received a waiver Tuesday from the NCAA and became eligible immediately. Two days later, Nembhard had 11 points, three assists and no turnovers in 32 minutes against the sixth-ranked Jayhawks.
We take a closer look at Nembhard’s impact on the rotation and the offense, sophomore Anton Watson’s role and more in the first Gonzaga rewind of the young season.
Another backcourt playmaker
Gonzaga’s backcourt wasn’t short on size, athleticism and star power with starters Jalen Suggs, Joel Ayayi and Corey Kispert before adding Nembhard to the equation.
Don’t forget Southern Illinois grad transfer Aaron Cook and promising freshmen Dominick Harris and Julian Strawther, even if their playing time might shrink with Nembhard in the picture.
The Zags used four guards together – often Suggs, Ayayi, Nembhard and Kispert – for long stretches against Kansas, which had little success stopping any of the four, and particularly Suggs, in transition or operating off high-ball screens.
It was the same story for Kansas and Auburn on Friday trying to defend Drew Timme in the post, complicated by the fact the sophomore also showed off his ballhandling ability, getting to the rim or in position for his inventory of shots.
“We have many, many people we trust in those ball screens and they all shoot it well, so we have many people we can put in what we call the ‘fill spot,’ ” GU head coach Mark Few said, following an impressive 102-90 win over the Jayhawks. “It just gives you a lot of options where we just need to play. You maybe don’t even have to have a set play-call from the bench, which we’ve usually used in the past.”
Gonzaga has numerous players that fit the positionless label, capable of leading the break or initiating offense, shifting from primary ballhandler to shooting guard/wing or from wing to power forward. That flexibility puts serious stress on defenses.
Gonzaga was so fluid on offense that its 12-of-39 shooting (30.8% ) beyond the 3-point arc through two games barely raised an eyebrow. That tends to happen when connecting on 70.3% on shots inside the arc and averaging 96 points.
“I think we have similar and different games,” Nembhard said of the backcourt recently on the March Madness 365 podcast with Andy Katz. “We can all pass the ball, we can all score, we play off each other well.”
It was thought Nembhard would sit out this season under NCAA transfer rules, but several factors led him to pursue a waiver.
“I knew it was a possibility, honestly, just because of the year we’re having and COVID being so unpredictable and the amount of waivers being given out,” Nembhard said. “I knew I had to stay ready just in case I got the opportunity.”
Nembhard’s arrival might take playing time from Watson as well as the reserve guards, but Watson started both games and he did a variety of things on the floor that suggest he’ll continue to have a prominent role.
The 6-foot-8 forward from Gonzaga Prep forced a KU turnover at the top of Gonzaga’s press in the first 35 seconds that led to a Suggs dunk. Watson scored in transition a few minutes later as the Zags quickly built a double-digit lead. He didn’t play in the final 11 minutes with GU rolling with a four-guard alignment.
Watson had six points, five boards, two assists and a block in 27 minutes versus Auburn.
“Anton is kind of a jack of all trades,” Few said. “He’s worked on his shot. We can space the floor a little bit. I don’t think he’s comfortable as just a back-to-the-basket guy, so no, we’re never going to just play him inside.
“He solves a lot of problems for us. He makes plays on the defensive end, and he has the best hands defensively I’ve ever coached. So we ask him to do a little bit of everything.
“We asked him to switch all the ball screens and guard Marcus Garrett, who is as good a downhill driver as there is in college basketball. That’s kind of what we’re looking for.”
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