Gators Getting Defensive Excellence From Unexpected Player

Pop quiz!

Which Gator has been credited with defending the most shots this season?

While you think, here’s a stat. This player has defended 112 shots on the season, and he has a major lead on the player in second who has contested 81 attempts.

One more stat—not only has he defended more shots, vastly more than anyone on the team, but he’s allowing the lowest percentage and points per possession of anyone on the team.

Lock in your guesses.

It’s….

Andrew Nembhard.

This may have surprised some of you, especially with the second stat. Lots of point guards are primary scorers now so it might make sense that Nembhard would be in a position to defend a lot of attempts, but the fact that percentage-wise he’s the best individual defender on the team has to be a shock to at least some of you.

Furthermore, not only is he the best Gator in terms of individual defensive numbers but he has a major lead in that category as well.

First, here is the list of Gators in terms of shots defended:

Andrew Nembhard: 112
Noah Locke: 81
Scottie Lewis: 81
Keyontae Johnson: 79
Kerry Blackshear: 72
Ques Glover: 47
Tre Mann: 45
Omar Payne: 42
Dontay Bassett: 21
Jason Jitoboh: 8
Gorjok Gak: 2

And here are the points per possession allowed with the field goal percentage in parenthesis:

Andrew Nembhard: 0.625 (25.8%)
Ques Glover: 0.702 (38.9%)
Keyontae Johnson: 0.709 (35.1%)
Tre Mann: 0.711 (27.3%)
Scottie Lewis: 0.728 (35.5%)
Noah Locke: 0.741 (30%)
Omar Payne: 0.786 (37%)
Kerry Blackshear: 0.792 (40.4%)
Gorjok Gak: 1.0 (50%)
Dontay Bassett: 1.19 (50%)
Jason Jitoboh: 1.625 (57.1%)

Now, it should be noted that these numbers shouldn’t be treated as a hard and fast method of ranking defenders by quality. It’s sometimes a bit of a grey area when it comes to what player is credited with defending a shooter and sometimes if a player blows a coverage so badly an opponent scores on a wide open look there isn’t even a defender logged in that scenario, even though it’s clearly someone’s fault.

As well, someone might miss a coverage and a help defender scrambles to try to cover the mistake and ends up contesting the shot in a scenario where the offensive player has a great chance of scoring. That help defender will get dinged for trying to help out a teammate who made an error.

With that being said, these numbers regarding Andrew Nembhard are still fascinating because he is so far ahead of the pack in both number of shots contested and when it comes to the percentages allowed and for that reason I don’t think it’s a fluke. This is a decent sample size 12 games into the season and it shows that Nembhard is probably a much better defender than the consensus feels about him.

Not a particularly quick or athletic point guard, Nembhard isn’t built like an elite defender. He is tall but he’s not long for his height which limits the defensive potential you’d expect from a 6’5” guard.

In stretches where Florida’s defense hasn’t executed at a high level this year Nembhard is one of the players that a lot of people have pointed to as a weak point with many people questioning his defensive effort and lack of quickness hurting his ability to guard on the perimeter.

Coach White has trust in Nembhard’s ability on the defensive end, even though some fans don’t, but when you look at the numbers and see him overwhelmingly ahead of any other Gator in terms of points per possession allowed on more shots than anyone else you can start to see how he might actually be a really solid defender.

Going back and watching the tape of Nembhard on the defensive end you can start to see where he has made improvements in that area from his freshman season to where he’s at now. It starts with a more powerful lower body that allows him to stay in his stance more of the time, limiting opportunities for him to be caught flat-footed by a shifty guard and also making himself harder to screen by big men. If you walk straight up into a screen you take the brunt of the force on the shoulder which knocks you off balance and makes it tough to regain speed, but when you stay in a stance the screener is probably going to catch your hip, allowing you to spin off the contact and trail the ball handler.

Modern basketball is a pick and roll heavy game and if your starting point guard isn’t ready to guard those actions 15, 20, 30, or even more times per game your defense can struggle. Right now the Gators are in the 77th percentile nationally in pick and roll defense and a lot of the reason why is Nembhard’s ability to steer a ball handler in the direction the defensive scheme dictates and then fight over a screen to recover quickly.

Improving lower body strength and hip flexibility to be stronger in the stance must have been a good deal of hard work in the summer for Nembhard but it’s making him a noticeably better defender on the perimeter. Last season he had to contend with some lethal guards in the SEC with electric ball skills, and most of them were in the 6’0”-6’-1” range built to be speedy and capitalize on bigger guards like Nembhard. It looks like knowing that the Canadian point guard worked on his lateral movement and reaction abilities and it appears he’s ready to take on the SEC’s best once again.

On-ball defense isn’t the only area Nembhard is excelling in and this is a spot where I don’t think he gets anywhere near the credit he deserves and that’s as a help defender.

There is a reason Nembhard has been credited with more shots defended than anyone else on the team and that’s his ability to be in the right help defense positions at the right time.

Nembhard has defended more shots at the rim than any other Gator this year and most of them are when he was in a help defense position, rotating over and meeting a driver at the rim with his hands up to protect the hoop. He has defended over double the amount of shots Kerry Blackshear has at the rim, a testament to his dedication to help defense, and not only is he getting the right spots on the floor to help but he’s not allowing easy buckets.

The national average finishing around the rim is around 52% and right now as a defender Nembhard is allowing only 33%. Also, he is yet to commit a foul when defending the rim which is extremely hard to do but is another stat that points to how good he has been defensively.

Nembhard’s excellence as a help defender has to be pointed out because it’s not something that’s always going to be immediately noticed when a game is being watched. It’s much easier to keep an eye on the ball and what’s happening with the primary defender but often times in basketball the help defender is just as important as the player on the ball—though their effort isn’t going to be as easily noticed.

Mike White’s teams are always going to hang their hat on defense. The last few seasons saw the defense led by Kevarrius Hayes, a shot blocking force that could protect the rim just as easily as he could switch out to the perimeter and hang with a guard. Now that he’s gone the Gators need a new defensive leader and even though he doesn’t play the same position as Hayes it could very well be Nembhard. Point guards have the ball in their hands more than anyone and that means Nembhard is going to be guarding the ball more than anyone on the team and bringing defensive excellence at that position really sets the tone for the entire defense.

As one of the leaders on the team Nembhard is always vocal but he’s also leading the way with his play, working hard and intelligently on defense to continue a culture Mike White wants his teams to be known for. Before the season you may not have expected him to be one of the most impactful defenders on the team but he’s shown how much he’s worked to develop in that area and his effort is bringing positive results so far this season.

Eric Fawcett
Eric hails from Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. His blend of sports and comedy has landed his words on ESPN, Bleacher Report, CBS Sports, Lindy's and others. He loves zone defenses, the extra pass, and a 30 second shot clock. Growing up in Canada, an American channel showing SEC basketball games was his first exposure to Gator hoops, and he has been hooked ever since. You can follow him on Twitter at @Efawcett7.