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Gonzaga Basketball

‘It’s a great family’: As Andrew Nembhard continues to dazzle in the NBA, he fondly recalls his time at Gonzaga

Andrew Nembhard (2) of the Indiana Pacers shoots over Deni Avdija of the Washington Wizards in a February game in Washington, D.C.  (Getty Images)
By Stephen Hunt For The Spokesman-Review

DALLAS – Rick Carlisle knows the Indiana Pacers got a steal when they drafted Andrew Nembhard 31st overall in the second round of the 2022 NBA Draft because the entire organization thought Nembhard, who played his final two collegiate seasons at Gonzaga, was undoubtedly a first-round talent.

“I think when this past year’s draft is redrafted, it will be pretty clear he should have been a top-10 or 15 pick instead of a second-round pick,” said Carlisle, who is in his second season as Pacers head coach. “He’s been terrific and opportunistic.”

Thus far, Nembhard, 23, has appeared in 59 games (47 starts) and is averaging 7.9 points, 3.9 assists, 2.7 rebounds and one steal per game. But it’s been his defensive prowess which ultimately got him his first NBA opportunity.

“Offensive game gets you to the league for everybody. At this level, you’ve got to separate yourself,” Nembhard said. “Everybody can score the ball, pass, shoot. You’ve got to be able to guard. I think right now I’m doing a good job with that.”

As a junior with the Zags, Nembhard earned 2021 West Coast Conference Sixth Man of the Year and All-WCC second-team honors. As a senior in 2021-22, he averaged 11.8 points, 5.8 assists, 3.4 rebounds and 1.6 steals per game, earning first-team All-WCC honors.

Even though his stay in Spokane was abbreviated after starting his collegiate career at Florida, he wouldn’t trade his two seasons as a Zag for anything and considers himself forever a part of the Gonzaga basketball family.

“I loved my time at ’Zaga, some of the best times in hoops of my life,” Nembhard said. “Coach Few and his staff were huge for getting me to where I am now. I’ve got so much love for those guys.

“I think a lot of college programs try to talk about how they have a family environment, but at Gonzaga you feel genuine love from a lot of people. A lot of alumni come back and are pushing the next group along. It’s a great family. I love going back there and plan on going back as much as I can.”

Nembhard calls being part of the magical 2020-21 squad that went 31-1 before losing in the NCAA championship game to Baylor his favorite memory as a Zag.

“Being undefeated, how close-knit that group was” what I remember most, he said. “What we did that season, that was a super memorable season, one I’m going to cherish the rest of my life for sure.”

Making the jump from college to the NBA can be a big adjustment for many rookies and it has been for Nembhard, but one he has made rather quickly. Another big thing for NBA rookies is enduring rookie rites of passage, a way of paying their dues as NBA newcomers. Usual duties can include carrying luggage and getting coffee and donuts before shootarounds or practices. In some cases, rookies are asked to lug around a pink backpack all season, usually with a children’s character on it like Dora the Explorer, to announce their rookie status to everyone.

Thus far, Nembhard has escaped having to lug the dreaded pink backpack around, but late last month he and fellow rookie Bennedict Mathurin were tasked with singing Happy Birthday to teammate Tyrese Haliburton. Their turn came prior

to the February 28th game in Dallas.

“Me and Ben had to sing,” Nembhard said. “We sing Happy Birthday to people. I carry the speaker around, get doughnuts on trips, stuff like that.”

Throughout his long coaching career, which included over a decade in Dallas and the 2011 NBA title, Carlisle has been tagged as a coach who doesn’t normally play young players. Notable exceptions are Luka Doncic, considered one of the NBA’s top players who Carlisle coached during his final two seasons in Dallas, and Nembhard, who didn’t start the Pacers’ first few games of the season but earned his first start in Indiana’s ninth game on November 7 against New Orleans. He has been a fixture in Carlisle’s starting five ever since.

“Nembhard got on the court because of defense. He’s a tough-minded defender. He’s one of our best perimeter defenders and good at guarding guys who are bigger,” Carlisle said.

“He’s a bit unique because he’s got an old-school kind of vibe as a young player. He can play the point, play 2. It’s been interesting. He hasn’t played a lot of point guard for us because he’s started at 2 all year, but at times he’s moved over and done well with it. I really like him.”

The ex-Zag has thoroughly enjoyed his first season playing for Carlisle, who during their late February trip to Dallas, hosted the entire Pacers traveling party at his Dallas home where his wife and daughter continue to live .

“It’s been nice,” Nembhard said. “He’s given me a lot of opportunity, allowed me to play through my mistakes. … He’s been real encouraging to me, to keep aggressive and keep getting better. I’ve loved my time with Rick and the whole coaching staff. Rick can do a long of things, fly planes, play the piano. He’s got a lot of tricks in his sleeve.”

Nembhard said life as an NBA rookie has been about what he had expected coming in, but credits veteran teammates like Haliburton, James Johnson, TJ McConnell and Myles Turner for helping make his transition to the league as smooth as possible.

One big positive of playing in the Eastern Conference is that he’s gotten to see a few former Gonzaga teammates multiple times this season.

“The guys I played with like Jalen Suggs (at Orlando), Corey Kispert (at Washington), I love seeing them. That’s been fun to see,” he said. “I saw Chet (Holmgren) too (when we went to OKC). I’m real close with him.”

And even though he wasn’t there in person, Nembhard was happy to see ESPN College GameDay return to the Kennel on February 25.

“Gonzaga’s a top-tier environment in the country,” he said. “People don’t realize it because they think it’s a small college with a small gym, but top-tier environment for sure.”

Stephen Hunt is a freelance writer based in Frisco, Texas.