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Gonzaga Basketball
Sports >  Gonzaga basketball

Signature dish: Andrew Nembhard looks to cement his place among Gonzaga’s pantheon of point guard greats

It wouldn’t be too much of a stretch to say Gonzaga’s basketball program got more than it expected from Andrew Nembhard last season.

For a period of time, Nembhard’s value to the Bulldogs was supposed to be limited to what he’d do as a scout-team player, a role many ex-Zags have embraced as they’ve undergone redshirt years, either to satisfy transfer rules or make progress in different areas of their game. Nembhard, a Florida transfer who’d played 67 games the two years prior, was prepared to labor through a redshirt season and make the obligatory sacrifices while resisting the itch to get back on the floor.

But in a surprise move, the NCAA approved a late waiver for the transfer guard and Nembhard’s redshirt year vanished two days before the season opener against Kansas. There’s no telling where Gonzaga’s season might have ended otherwise. A 16-game starter who finished sixth nationally in assist-to-turnover ratio (3.59), Nembhard won the West Coast Conference’s Sixth Man of the Year award and helped steer the country’s top-ranked team to its second national championship appearance.

As national pundits continue to heap expectations on the Bulldogs in 2021-22, more will be expected from the veteran Nembhard on a GU team that lost three starters, including two from the much-heralded backcourt that led Mark Few’s program to a 31-1 record a season ago.

Yet, those who think they understand the totality of Nembhard’s value to the Bulldogs after watching him as a junior might be pleasantly surprised by what he’ll offer in another season in which Gonzaga is expected to contend for a national crown.

“I think this year you’re going to see Andrew be able to be himself and play the style he wants to play,” said his father, Claude Nembhard, in a phone interview. “I think his game, his body’s improved, his shot’s improved. I think you’re going to see the real Andrew this year.”

Last year could’ve amounted to a redshirt season for Nembhard, but instead the Ontario native emerged as a key piece for one of the best college basketball teams in recent memory and in doing so, joined a vaunted list of Gonzaga point guards that includes last names like Stockton, Dickau, Pangos and Williams-Goss.

Unlike many of them, Nembhard didn’t need two or three years under Few’s tutelage to become the quintessential Gonzaga point guard. He arrived that way.

“I can actually see in his play, he plays the way Coach Few wants him to play,” former Gonzaga point guard Quentin Hall said. “I just think he’s a coach’s dream, just looking at him.”

Nembhard isn’t a coach’s dream by accident, either. Claude spent time coaching his sons – Andrew’s younger brother, Ryan, is a freshman point guard at Creighton – and made a business decision early on that would pay major dividends for both in the long run.

“Being a 6-3 center, which is kind of what I was in high school … I said when I had my kids, they were going to have the ball in their hands,” Claude Nembhard said. “So, it was kind of planned, them being points.”

It wasn’t uncommon for a 3-year-old Nembhard to play with kids up to four years older, which inevitably meant he was the smallest player on floor at all times. In those settings Nembhard was dissuaded by his older peers from shooting the ball, so he quickly learned how to distribute.

“I think you have a responsibility to get other guys involved that are better, for sure,” he said. “That can score the ball better than you. At that point they could, so I had to do what I had to do.”

Like many aspiring point guards at the time, Nembhard took his cues from prominent NBA players like Chris Paul and Deron Williams. In the hockey-obsessed town of Aurora, Ontario, there weren’t many local success stories for Nembhard to follow, but that changed sometime between 2009 and 2011 when a prolific point guard from Denison Secondary – a school that was “right down the street,” according to Nembhard – emerged on the scene.

For the small but proud basketball community in the Toronto suburb, Kevin Pangos was already blazing a trail for promising young Canadians looking to further their careers in the U.S.

“It’s a lot of hockey, so for me (Pangos) was definitely the guy in town for sure,” Nembhard said. “… I used to watch his games a lot. My dad used to bring me to his high school games and stuff. We used to love his games, love his family.”

Little did Nembhard know Pangos would become a central figure in his decision to transfer from Florida to Gonzaga. Twice he teamed up with Pangos at the international level, wearing the Canadian flag for the senior national team for FIBA World Cup qualifying games in the summer in 2018 and at the FIBA World Cup in 2019. Pangos could lend insight into playing point guard for Few, while Canadian teammates and former Zags Kelly Olynyk and Kyle Wiltjer could offer Nembhard anecdotes from their redshirt years at GU – the route he was supposed to take before getting a waiver approved last fall.

“That was a big reason I wanted to come here and get better last year,” Nembhard said. “Obviously I got the opportunity to play and that was great, but they just kind of taught me how Gonzaga’s culture was and how their player development was and it was just really attractive to me.”

Instead Nembhard developed in real time, from Gonzaga’s “sixth starter” to the Bulldogs’ go-to option at point guard, where he started 13 of the final 14 games and furnished an impeccable assist-to-turnover ratio of 4.12 in six NCAA Tournament games.

Nembhard’s poise has been a major weapon for a Gonzaga team that tends to find itself in more high-pressure moments the deeper it goes in the NCAA Tournament and his vision should continue to be a crucial asset for a program that returns one of the country’s premier low-post players in Drew Timme and brings in a highly-skilled shooter in freshman Chet Holmgren, a five-star recruit.

“He knows the game, he has a high IQ, he moves the ball unselfishly. He plays at a fast pace,” Claude Nembhard said. “These are all things Gonzaga’s guards need to do. He’s an ideal fit for that system. He’s got some size. He’s just an ideal fit for what Coach Few does over there.”

Nembhard sees some Pangos in his own game, drawing parallels to his countryman’s “poise” as well as “just the way he sees the game.”

Gonzaga assistant Brian Michaelson points to Nembhard’s frame – the Bulldogs’ official roster lists him at 6-foot-5, 193 pounds – as something that separates the veteran from a handful, though not all, of the decorated point guards who’ve come through Spokane during Few’s 22-year run.

“It’s hard to set yourself apart from all the great ones we’ve had last 20-something years under Coach Few,” Michaelson said. “Obviously his size is really unique. We’ve had good big point guards, you think about Blake (Stepp), Nigel (Williams-Goss), (Matt) Bouldin, Jalen (Suggs). He’s every bit as big as those guys, bigger than Nigel.”

Michaelson said only one other Gonzaga point guard has proven to be as adept at reading and making the right play out of ball screens, which have become a staple of Few’s offense.

“Him and Perk (Josh Perkins) are the first two that come to mind with the ability to pass out of those,” Michaelson said.

Nembhard’s frame might look leaner than it did last year. Because of COVID-19 regulations in Ontario, he spent the offseason in Spokane and worked diligently to trim his body fat to 4%, noting “my body feels probably the best it’s been.”

Gonzaga coaches have other instructions for Nembhard this season: talk more and shoot more. Departing players Corey Kispert, Joel Ayayi, and to some extent Suggs, weren’t shy when it came to either during GU’s run to the national championship game last season, and as the most experienced college basketball player on the Bulldogs’ new roster, Nembhard is expected to help the voids left behind by his teammates.

“(I) just have to remind myself I have a good understanding of the game and I have a lot of experience I can give to some of these young guys on the team,” he said. “It would be doing me and them a disservice if I didn’t kind of vocalize it.”

Nembhard shot 34.7% from the 3-point line during his freshman season at Florida, but regressed as a sophomore (30.4%) before improving slightly as a junior at Gonzaga (32.3%). He maintains most haven’t seen his ceiling as a long-range shooter.

“I think my shot is honestly underrated,” Nembhard said. “I think I just need to keep shooting it with confidence.”

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