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Gonzaga Basketball

Nolan Hickman gave up his point guard role, but not before assisting on the biggest play of Gonzaga’s offseason

As mutual interest between Ryan Nembhard and Gonzaga started to escalate in the spring, reaching a climax on April 14 when the Creighton standout arrived in Spokane for an official visit, a recurring question started to follow speculation and buzz the transfer point guard was seriously considering the Bulldogs.

Adding Nembhard was a no-brainer, but what about the consequences for Nolan Hickman, who started 36 games at point guard for Gonzaga’s latest Elite Eight team? Would Hickman invite more competition in the backcourt or run from it? Would he accommodate Nembhard – truly accommodate him – or put on a façade for the next 12 months to avoid friction in the locker room?

Gonzaga fans wanted to know all of the above. To some extent, so did head coach Mark Few, who’s been responsible for 691 wins at the helm of the Bulldogs’ program, not to mention all the victories he’s piled up in the transfer portal.

“I think we got them here,” Few said, “and I remember talking to Nolan last year when we were going after Ryan.”

How was he processing everything?

“Instead of being threatened by him,” Few said, “(Hickman) was excited.”

Few didn’t need Hickman to give him a green light, but Gonzaga’s 2023-24 team was probably unlikely to reach its ceiling unless the junior bought in.

Not only did Hickman approve, it’s possible nobody within Few’s program lobbied harder to bring in Nembhard. While the transfer point guard was considering his options, Hickman delivered his sales pitch, one Instagram message at a time.

“It meant a lot, honestly,” Nembhard said. “Nolan’s a great dude, he welcomed me with open arms.”

Hickman, who characterized his 2022-23 season as “average” right after Gonzaga’s Elite Eight loss to UConn, was the biggest proponent of adding Nembhard to the mix, realizing all the ways the All-Big East point guard could unlock different aspects of his game.

Despite a variety of encouraging moments throughout the year – 20 points and a winning 3-pointer at Santa Clara, 15 points against Purdue, another 15 against Chicago State – Hickman’s sophomore season ended with a demoralizing string of lows.

The guard’s perimeter shooting, normally a strength , fizzled in the NCAA Tournament and he finished 0 of 10 from 3-point range in four games against Grand Canyon, TCU, UCLA and UConn. He didn’t score in the Sweet 16 or Elite Eight, and Few went in a different direction to close out a dramatic 79-76 win over the Bruins, giving senior Malachi Smith 16 minutes in the second half while Hickman played just five.

Hickman’s struggles amplified conversations about the guard’s future once Gonzaga’s season ended. Some fans were adamant he needed a change of scenery. That may have been true, but it didn’t necessarily mean leaving Gonzaga.

“I don’t know that he really wanted to set up our offense and have all those point guard responsibilities,” Few said. “He’s got some scoring to him, I think he’s probably better served as just kind of a combo. He’s great when we can call him into a ball screen, because he’s kind of got a scoring mentality and he knows our system in and out and knows what we’re looking for.”

In many ways, all Gonzaga’s point guard needed was, well, a point guard.

When Nembhard made it official with an early morning Instagram post on April 21, announcing he’d chosen Few and Gonzaga over former Bulldogs assistant Tommy Lloyd and Arizona, Hickman was one of the first players to weigh in on GU’s newest acquisition.

The Seattle native reposted Nembhard’s announcement to his own Instagram story, relaying his excitement through a caption: “mhmm let’s rock brother nemb.”

“I was hyped,” Hickman said, seated next to Nembhard during a news conference following Gonzaga’s season opener against Yale, a game in which the guards combined for 31 points, 10 assists and six rebounds. “We needed it.

“I needed it. I’m not going to say we needed it, but I needed it for sure. Me and coach Few, we were on the same page. There wasn’t any bad feelings or anything.”

The Zags may have landed a commitment from Nembhard one way or the other, but the former Creighton guard assured that Hickman’s involvement – and interest – “was definitely a factor” in his decision.

“We definitely talked over Instagram when I hopped in the portal and I’d played against him in high school,” Nembhard said. “So we’d kind of already knew each other from that, so I knew how great of a player he was. I know the stuff he did here the year before and I would love to share the backcourt with him.”

In that high school game, a Feb. 6, 2021, meeting between Hickman’s Wasatch (Utah) Academy and Nembhard’s Montverde (Florida) Academy, Hickman delivered a game-high 23 points while Nembhard dished out seven assists in a 73-66 Montverde win.

In some ways, it foreshadowed the roles both are playing for the 11th-ranked Zags this season. Hickman, a 35% 3-point shooter in 2022-23, will have more freedom to score without the burden of generating opportunities for his teammates. Nembhard, who prefers a high-usage, on-ball role, will shoulder point guard duties after averaging 4.6 assists over two seasons at Creighton.

“I honestly think it’s been working for me just to get me off the ball a little bit,” Hickman said. “All last year, I was on the ball constantly. Being able to have a second guard right by me, doing the same thing I was doing last year, it just takes a lot of weight off my shoulders, for sure.”

Historically, Gonzaga’s best teams have been the ones that deployed two lead guards capable of steering the offense. In 2016-17, the Bulldogs reached the program’s first national championship game by pairing Nigel Williams-Goss with Josh Perkins. Four years later, Nembhard’s older brother, Andrew, and freshman star Jalen Suggs, helped guide the Bulldogs to a 31-0 record before losing to Baylor in the title game.

Andrew believes Gonzaga can replicate that success with a similar alignment in the backcourt this season. The second-year Indiana Pacers guard trains frequently with his younger brother in the offseason and he knows Hickman’s game well, spending one college playing season playing alongside the former five-star recruit in 2021-22.

“Yeah, I just think that’s where the game’s going,” Andrew said after an NBA Summer League practice in Las Vegas this summer. “I think they want playmakers on the court. They want decision makers, guys who they feel comfortable with the ball in their hands. They can both play off each other. I think Nolan played a lot of ‘2’ in high school, a lot of off-ball and making decisions, so I think it’ll be comfortable for him.

“That’s where the game’s going. You need guys who can make plays, multiple guys, because if only one guy’s in the game, they’re going to game plan and try to take away one guy.”

It’s probably a safe bet to assume Nembhard will finish the year as Gonzaga’s assists leader and Hickman will see a significant bump in his offensive numbers after averaging 7.7 points last years, but the beauty of the Zags’ new backcourt is its pliability.

Nembhard doesn’t plan on turning down opportunities to put the ball in the hoop – something he demonstrated often while scoring a career-high 30 points in last year’s NCAA Tournament against Baylor. Meanwhile, Hickman’s still more than happy to facilitate if the game plan or defensive coverage necessitates it. He had a team-high five assists in Tuesday’s 123-57 win over Eastern Oregon, dishing out three assists before Nembhard registered one.

“We just both know how to play basketball, both unselfish, both enjoy playing with each other. We’ve both been working all summer together and kind of built a relationship,” Nembhard said. “It’s been working really good so far and I can’t wait to see where it goes, honestly.”

Hickman might have given up his point guard role, but not before assisting on the biggest play of Gonzaga’s offseason. So far, the sacrifice is playing off.

“He wanted to help get (Nembhard) here,” Few said, “and I thought that was a really, really big step there.

“I think having Ryan, it just kind of frees up Nolan to play kind of how he wants to play. … I mean, they’re playing great together, they really are.”