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Andrew Nembhard is the key to the Zags’ success

When the senior point guard is on, the Zags can’t be stopped.

NCAA Basketball: Northern Arizona at Gonzaga James Snook-USA TODAY Sports

When the hyped No. 1 vs. No. 2 matchup between the Gonzaga Bulldogs and the UCLA Bruins turned into an absolute beatdown, the Zags, at that point in the early season, looked invincible. Much of that charge was led by the senior point guard Andrew Nembhard.

Nembhard was borderline perfect against UCLA. He played a full 40 minutes, scored 24 points on 9-for-13 shooting, dished out six assists, stole the ball three times, and turned the ball over three times. Elation all around.

Immediately following the UCLA win, Gonzaga narrowly lost against Duke, struggled against a mediocre Tarleton State squad, and then thoroughly lost against Alabama in what was essentially a home environment. In all three games, Nembhard struggled.

Through those three games, he totaled offensive ratings of 80, 72, and 63. In those two losses and a win, Nembhard’s average box score was a bit unbecoming: 6.3 points, 30.7 percent shooting (including a total 0-for-9 from three-point), 5.6 assists, and 4.0 turnovers per game.

It goes without saying: If your team’s senior point guard struggles during a game, overall, your team struggles during the game. It showed during that week-plus of late November and early December. Gonzaga will only go as far as Andrew Nembhard can take them.

Nembhard is an interesting case study in modern collegiate point guards. Modern professional basketball has turned into a point guard’s game, but for Nembhard’s career, he has always been a supporting piece.

Even at Florida, starting since his freshman year, Nembhard’s primary role was to facilitate the offense, not necessarily have the offense flow through him. As a sophomore, he was third on the team in points, but that was behind the frontcourt of Keyontae Johnson and Kerry Blackshear, who gobbled on a lion’s share of Florida’s possessions.

Last season, it was much of the same. Considering Nembhard wasn’t even supposed to play until the surprise NCAA waiver came through at the last minute, the offense flowed through three dominant scorers: Corey Kispert, Drew Timme, and Jalen Suggs.

That brings us to this season.

NCAA Basketball: Good Sam Empire Classic-Gonzaga at UCLA Stephen R. Sylvanie-USA TODAY Sports

Expectations are a tricky beast. People just sort of lob them onto individuals and if those players do not rise to the occasion, people tend to get upset. Part of that is fair, and part of that is not.

Many of us expected Nembhard to take a big leap this year as the dominant force in the backcourt, and for the most part, it is safe to say that he has not fully stuck the landing. Part of that is fair, and part of that is not.

Nembhard has never been a score-first point guard, which goes a bit against the grain of the trend of basketball. He is fifth on the squad at points per game and, amongst the starting five, takes the least percentage of shots while on the floor at just 17.4 percent (Julian Strawther holds the lead at 24.6 percent, for reference).

What Nembhard does, with varying degrees of success, is break down the opponents’ defense with his crafty penetrating skills, and either put up a two-point jumper or find his teammate for a better shot. These two aspects of his game have taken a hit this season, part his fault, part not.

For the part that is not his fault: Gonzaga just doesn’t have the shooters like it did last season. We know that by now. Dribble penetration and kicking it out to the open shooter only works when the open shooter hits the three. More often than not with these Zags, we hear a loud and painful clank.

For the part that is his fault: Nembhard’s probing two-point floaters just aren’t falling this season like normal. Nembhard attempts two-point shots away from the rim much more than your average Zag (and probably college basketball player). Here are Andrew Nembhard’s percentages of two-point jumpers taken alongside the percent he makes them for each year.

  • Freshman: 38 - 42
  • Sophomore: 27.5 - 32.4
  • Junior: 27.8 - 49.2
  • Senior: 28.6 - 33.3

Three-point shooting has never been, and will never be, Nembhard’s strength. If he can reclaim a bit of that muster he showed last season in hitting those penetrating floaters, Nembhard can cause a bit more havoc on the offensive end.

The thing about this Gonzaga team, however, is that they don’t need Nembhard to score points. They already have Julian Strawther, Drew Timme, and Chet Holmgren. What they need Nembhard to do is facilitate the offense effectively.

Using filters of turnover percentage of greater than 10 and assist percentage greater than 20 (to attempt to sort out just point guards), Nembhard’s TO% of 20.2 puts him at No. 196 in the country. Not elite, by any stretch, and this is where the improvement needs to come as the conference play continues.

There are signs of optimism as the Zags approach conference play. In his last four games, Nembhard has totaled four turnovers. Merrimack is ranked No. 18 in the nation in TO%, Texas Tech is No. 20, and North Alabama is No. 84. Despite the fact that Merrimack and North Alabama are not good teams overall, they either are quality or excel at forcing turnovers, and Nembhard showcased much better decision-making and ball control these past two weeks.

Add those totals to the game against Texas, the nation’s top team at forcing turnovers. Nembhard played the full 40 minutes and turned the ball over once.

If Nembhard can get a few more of his shots to fall and continues to do a quality job of handling the ball, Gonzaga has the tools on both the offensive and defensive ends to be one of the (if not THE) best teams in the country.