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2021-2022 Player Preview: Andrew Nembhard

Perhaps the only underrated facet of a consensus number one overall team, the elite passer looks to turn heads this season

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-USC vs Gonzaga Robert Deutsch-USA TODAY Sports

Throughout the build-up to the season, the Zags frontcourt has, justifiably, received the lion’s share of national media attention. A returning award recipient and leading scorer in Drew Timme alongside a unicorn and consensus number one overall recruit like Chet Holmgren are going to deserve that kind of notoriety. But senior Andrew Nembhard is another name that should gain plenty of national traction.

Nembhard did a lot of things to make the Zags’ team run last season. He was a plus defender, great ballhandler, superb passer and dependable shooter. The season earned him 6th Man of the Year as well as Second-Team honors in the WCC. It wasn’t necessarily easy for him, as he only found out he was eligible to play two days before the season started and hadn’t practiced much with the first team. To complicate things further, Nembhard needed to share ballhandling duties with two future NBA players Jalen Suggs and Joel Ayayi which made him play out of position at times.

This season, the true point guard has the keys to the offense. He proved last season to be ball-screen visionary and this year should be no different, with the added benefits that a player like Chet Holmgren can have in those machinations. Teams struggled to contain Timme last year in the pick-and-roll, now you’re going to have the secondary threat of 7-footer popping out to the perimeter for open looks?

Outside of freshman Nolan Hickman, Nembhard’s the only natural point guard on the roster. Coach Mark Few has plenty of pairings to match with Nembhard’s style, with two unique driving scorers in Rasir Bolton and Hunter Sallis as well as multi-level scorer Julian Strawther. He will have plenty of offensive firepower alongside him, which works in the unselfish ballhandler’s favor. And as this team continues to progress defensively and with the help of Holmgren’s blocking abilities as well as Sallis and Hickman’s lane disruption, transition points will come easy and often.

Nembhard displayed an improved shooting form at Kraziness in the Kennel which will no doubt be a benefit to his prospects beyond college and help elevate his game this year. Going 2-for-3 from outside, he showcased a quicker release and seemed to push the ball less than he did the previous season. The Zags currently do not have a de facto three-point shooter as they did with Corey Kispert last season. Some pressure will be on Nembhard and others to try and shore that facet of the offense heading into the season. If he can further his already dependable space creation and step-back game, lookout.

It’s frankly shocking to see how the national media is forecasting the Gonzaga roster and its pieces. Now closer to the start of the season, analysts have taken to the same exercise as the Gonzaga faithful and tried to pinpoint the one true Bulldogs starting lineup. Nembhard is returning from a junior season that saw him lead the team in assists and ranking as a top 100 offensive player in KenPom and somehow—according to several national writers—going to be playing off the ball with Hickman or Bolton pushing him.

This is not a knock on either of those players, but rather an underevaluation of the kind of offensive maestro Nembhard is. Sharing the ballhandling duties as much as he did, Nembhard averaged 5.2 assists per game last season. It would not be shocking to see him eclipse the single-season assist record set by Josh Perkins in 2017-2018.

It will be interesting to see how and when folks start noticing Nembhard’s elite court vision and distribution. A fun narrative throughout conference play will be how far guys stand out in a league that legitimately has adept guards on each roster. The fight for First-Team between Nembhard and Alex Barcello should be something to keep an eye on.

But Nembhard and the Zags ultimately have their eyes on bigger things. And after a tough finish that opened some eyes about the toughness and speed to which you have to play against other great teams, seeing how Nembhard and the Bulldogs keep their foot on the gas should be something to watch all season.