Claude Nembhard’s account of the story goes something like this. Nembhard, a youth basketball coach in the York Region of Ontario, was at a local rec league game with a friend checking out some of the area’s top young players. Among them, an 11-year-old Andrew Wiggins and future Southeastern Conference Sixth Man of the Year Duane Notice, a South Carolina standout who’d eventually make a name for himself on the Canadian national team.
When halftime arrived, a smaller, preschool-aged boy strolled onto the court and started to dribble around. He showed deft ball-handling skills and a decent jumper for someone who couldn’t have been older than 6, so Nembhard, who’d soon build another rec team around his oldest son, Andrew, decided to inquire further.
“I said, ‘This kid’s pretty good,’” Claude recalled. “It turns out that was Duane Notice’s little brother, Marcus Carr, and the person I went to the game with knew Clive Carr, who’s Marcus’ dad. So I talked to him and I told him I’m coaching a team.
“Next thing you know, Marcus was in my gym.”
The starting point guards in Saturday’s nationally-televised showdown between No. 1 Gonzaga and No. 5 Texas (7:30 p.m., ESPN) go back so far nobody can quite remember how old Andrew Nembhard and Marcus Carr actually were when they joined forces to play for Claude’s rec league Vaughan Panthers at the Dufferin Clark Community Centre in Thornhill, Ontario – the same facility where Wiggins famously shattered a glass backboard at the age of 13.
“After our first year playing real rec basketball, we were also on the same team for about two years,” Carr said, “so we’ve been knowing each other since we pretty much picked up a basketball.”
Ages aside, this much was certain: the future was bright and the ceiling high for two young guards who’d follow a similar track over the next 10-12 years. Nembhard and Carr played together for a junior academy club in Ontario, they represented Canada at the U-16 FIBA Americas tournament and they reunited in Florida when both had the opportunity to play at prep powerhouse Montverde Academy, alongside a third Canadian, current New York Knick RJ Barrett.
“We paired really well with each other, we were really competitive guys and we could both play the one and the two,” Nembhard said. “We both liked playing the one and the two and we could guard a lot of positions. We were really fun to play with. Honestly, I really liked playing with him. He had a certain energy when we played together.”
At 6-foot-5, 195 pounds, Nembhard is a big guard who thrives on being able to use his length and size against smaller backcourts. Carr comes in at 6-2 and 190 pounds, but the Texas guard wants it on record he once had the size advantage on Nembhard – that is until his teammate had a fortuitous growth spurt in eighth/ninth grade.
“It’s actually kind of funny, I was taller when I was younger so he was still coming off the ball screens but I was the one setting them when we were really young,” Carr laughed. “… I definitely wish it was the other way around, but yeah it is a bit funny how that stuff works.”
The competition they faced at even the rec league level helped prepare Nembhard and Carr for what was to come. Carr recalls the time their Vaughan squad went toe-to-toe with YAAACE, a team that featured cousins Shae Gilgeous-Alexander and Nickeil Alexander-Walker, who now play for the Oklahoma City Thunder and New Orleans Pelicans. Another one of Claude’s teams faced Ignas Brazdeikis (Orlando Magic) and Oshae Brissett (Toronto Raptors).
“It’s a great story,” Claude said. “… It’s a community. The kids played together growing up and as time goes by they’ll probably be on the senior men’s team at some point.”
Both have already spent years on Team Canada’s radar. In 2015 at the U-16 FIBA Americas event, Nembhard averaged 4.2 assists – second among all players – and had the tournament’s top assist-to-turnover ratio (2.6) while scoring 7.8 points per game. Carr scored 6.3 ppg and had 2.8 rpg for a Canadian team that finished 4-1.
The Montverde movement came next. Some assume it started with Carr or Barrett, who enrolled at the Orlando-area prep school one year before Nembhard did, but years earlier Claude had coached Canadian-born power forward Chris Egi, who attended Montverde in the 1990s. Egi turned the Nembhard family onto the Florida school and word eventually spread to Carr and Barrett.
In what was likely their most prolific game as a trio, Nembhard, Barrett and Carr combined to score more than 50 points – with Nembhard and Barrett combining for 43 – to lead No. 2 Montverde past No. 17 Bishop Montgomery (Calif.) 73-67 at the Spalding Hoophall Classic.
When Montverde’s Canadian transplants weren’t refining their game in competitive practice sessions, they passed time by tracking down the area’s best Jamaican food. Nembhard, Carr and Barrett are Canadian citizens, but they also share Jamaican heritage.
“So whenever we could find some Jamaican food in Florida,” Carr said, “we were definitely going to all eat that together.”
Though Nembhard and Carr finally saw their paths diverge once they left Montverde, their trajectories remained eerily similar. Carr started at Pittsburgh before transferring to Minnesota while Nembhard spent his first two seasons at Florida. At some point, both determined they could play on a bigger stage. With better players. For more meaningful trophies.
So Nembhard found a national contender in Gonzaga last fall and nearly led the Bulldogs to the NCAA title in April. After leading Minnesota in scoring, Carr moved on to Texas, where the Longhorns have similar aspirations under former Texas Tech coach Chris Beard. Both players have already collected preseason accolades, being named to watch lists for the Naismith Trophy, Wooden Award and Bob Cousy Award.
“Nembhard’s a special player. His assist-to-turnover is pro-like,” Beard said. “He did a great job last year playing his role, running the team but also anytime that Gonzaga needed it, it was obvious he could make a play. It seemed to me the ball was in his hands in big moments and I’m sure that was by design when you play for a guy as good as coach (Mark) Few. So he’s a real threat.
“He plays with pro poise. It wasn’t a coincidence that Baylor played Gonzaga last year for the national championship. I think Nembhard’s a big part of that. You have to have a guard like Nembhard to play in that game.”
As for Carr’s credentials? Few spoke extensively about Texas’ veteran backcourt on Thursday, but it’s probably best to leave the scouting report to Nembhard.
“I’ve just seen (Carr) being a leader and I remember watching his games at Minnesota,” he said. “He was just doing everything for them when it came to scoring the ball, assisting the rock. What I know about him is he’s a big competitor, so that will carry him really far.”
Saturday will mark another convergence for the old friends who’ve remained relatively close over the years and still train together at the same Ontario gym on the rare occasion their offseason schedules align. Nembhard and Carr haven’t spoken about Saturday’s matchup, but the Gonzaga guard anticipates some light banter when they see each other on the floor for the first time during pregame warmups.
“That’s just natural,” Nembhard said, “that’s just the game.”
Carr said he’s anticipated the moment since he caught wind of Texas’ nonconference schedule.
“That’s going to be surreal. We’ll probably both take a moment just in the beginning like, dang this is crazy,” he said. “But after that, he’s a competitor, I’m a competitor as well so we’re definitely going to be trying to go as hard as we can and making sure each other wins as a team.”
Though their paths will diverge again Sunday, history suggests another meeting is inevitable, whether that be as teammates on Canada’s senior national team and/or foes in the NBA.
“It’s nice to see two guys coming from Canada playing together when we were younger just grow and keep getting better every year and get to this stage,” Nembhard said. “So I feel like it’s only the beginning for both of us. We’re just going to keep going.”
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