Why Nembhard Fits At Gonzaga (And Why He Didn’t Totally Fit At Florida)

When Andrew Nembhard announced that he would be transferring to Gonzaga it was about as least-shocking a decision that could have been expected.

Could it be because the Bulldogs heavily recruited Nembhard out of high school and they were one of his final schools? Sure.

Was it that that Gonzaga has become guard transfer U as of late with Ryan Woolridge, Geno Crandall, Admon Gilder, and perhaps most notable Nigel Williams-Goss? Quite possibly.

Or, is it that Nembhard is joining the long pipeline of Canadians following in the footsteps of successful canucks such as Kelly Olynyk, Kyle Wiltjer, and Kevin Pangos? That could be it.

Those are all great reasons, and it’s likely all of them played some role in Nembhard’s decision. There is a reason most people were expecting Gonzaga to be the move for Nembhard when he announced his intentions to leave Florida and it’s essentially that all those signs previously laid out pointed towards him fitting in as a bulldog.

However, more than the previous relationship, past success with point guards, and Canadian heritage, the fact of the matter is simple—Nembhard’s style of play perfectly fits what Gonzaga wants to do. Scratch that—Nembhard’s style of play fits exactly what Gonzaga DOES.

Mark Few is one of the best coaches in modern college basketball history and one of the reasons he is so successful is that he has a distinct style of play and he has made a focused effort to recruit towards it. That has been a large reason Gonzaga has had so much consistency and it’s a big part of why Few has been so active in the transfer market. Seeing how players have already performed at the division-I level allows him to know what an athlete is and when he knows they fit in his system he goes and gets them.

Sadly, it never quite felt like there was total synergy between what the Gators wanted to do offensively with what Nembhard’s skill set was and there seemed to be some dissonance between what White recruited in Nembhard and what he expects from his lead guards.

Why exactly did things not work out swimmingly between the Gators and Nembhard, and why did Gonzaga covet him so much when he hit the market? Here are a few reasons.

Let’s start with the most common play in basketball—the pick and roll.

When talking about Gonzaga’s offense you have to start with the pick and roll. Why? Because the Bulldogs were the best pick and roll team in the country last season shooting 48.7% out of those plays and averaging 1.05 points per possession.

What makes Gonzaga’s pick and roll offense such an interesting talking point is that they don’t run the play like most teams are doing nowadays.

What’s popular in 2020 is to run spread pick and roll. That means taking the three players that aren’t involved in the pick and roll and putting them behind the three-point line. Obviously this leads to great spacing as there aren’t any offensive players sitting near the rim and bringing defenders into the prime scoring area, allowing for the two-man game of the pick and roll to operate. The spread pick and roll was popularized in the NBA by teams such as the Tony Parker and Tim Duncan Spurs as well as the LeBron James and Chris Bosh Heat, and now it’s what just about everyone in both the NBA and college are doing now.

But not Gonzaga.

While many teams have started playing multiple wings with only one true big, the Bulldogs have continued to roll out two post players at a time. This is something that’s viewed as archaic in some basketball circles but Gonzaga has great success in doing it.

The Bulldogs had the number one offense in the country last season according to KenPom’s adjusted offensive efficiency metric, and that was no flash in the pan.

They also had the number one offense in 2019, and the four years prior saw them in the top 20 each time. Mark Few and the Bulldogs know offense, and a large part of their attack is playing two bigs at a time.

Instead of using the spread ball screen that’s so prevalent nowadays the Bulldogs do the exact opposite. While one big goes to set the ball screen, the other big parks himself in the paint and looks to seal his defender.

On first glance this might look like the spacing of the floor is ruined. The second big is stationed in the lane, right where the ball handler and roll man both want to get to, and to make matters worse that second big is inherently bringing over his defender adding to the congestion.

But that isn’t the case. By the second big parking himself in the lane he has made his man the de facto help defender. None of the two remaining defenders off the ball can leave their man for a wide open three, so it’s got to be the second big defender that’s tasked with the help role.

The role of the second big is to seal his defender and not allow him to rotate over to take away the roll man or the ball handler if he gets all the way to the hoop. If the defender is able to break away from the seal and rotates over to take away the ball handler or tag the roller, it leaves the second big open for a dump off pass. This offense has been used by Gonzaga for years and they have used it to dominate and overwhelm opponents.

Does this offense sound at all familiar to you?

It should. The Gators took this offense right out of the Gonzaga playbook at the start of conference play when they were still playing Kerry Blackshear Jr. and Omar Payne together. It made sense—the Gators wanted to play two bigs at the same time so they took a look at the best two-big offense in the country, Gonzaga.

It was during this stretch of two big basketball where the Gators played their best offense of the season and Nembhard absolutely thrived in it. Take a look at a few plays where Florida’s offense looked unstoppable and Nembhard looked like a star operating it.

For whatever reason the Gators went away from this offense midway through conference play and their offense never looked as good as when they were running these pick and roll options. Fortunately for Nembhard, he’ll get the opportunity to play this style of offense regularly at Gonzaga and therefore should be in a great position to succeed.

Overall, Nembhard was in the 69th percentile of pick and roll offense which is a solid but not spectacular number. However, if you look at the stretch from January 4th (Alabama) until January 28th (Mississippi State) where the Gators were playing two bigs and going pick and roll heavy, Nembhard was in the 92nd percentile. Considering Gonzaga plays the pick and roll style the Gators used in that month, Nembhard should be in great shape.

Another reason Gonzaga was interested in Nembhard is his play in transition.

Now, this has been a contentious issue over the last two seasons as some people have blamed Nembhard for Florida’s slow tempo, but there are people (like myself) that will aggressively push back on that.

Nembhard played fast in high school at Montverde to great effect and also looked outstanding running a hyper speed transition attack with the Canadian national team in the summer of 2019 against NBA and high-level international competition. Additionally, Nembhard was sixth amongst high major guards in transition-derived offense which speaks to how good he was on the break.

We can argue about how much of that was Nembhard’s fault (the consensus take, I think would be fair to say) versus the fault of scheme and the other players on the floor (my take) but how’s this for an argument.

Gonzaga was the 8th fastest team in college basketball last season. Their previous three seasons saw them 6th, 56th, and 40th, so they know something about playing fast. A whopping 21.8% of their shots came in transition, a number that almost doubles Florida’s 11.2% of shots in transition.

If there is a team that knows about playing fast, it’s Gonzaga, and they want Nembhard to run their fast break and fit into one of the most uptempo schemes in the country. Mark Few seeing Nembhard’s ability to play in transition should really say something about his ability to play fast, something that was a discussion point for a lot of his career in Gainesville.

Another common criticism of Nembhard’s game (one that I do think is a fair one) is the athletic deficit he has against the average high major guard. Nembhard’s athleticism, or lack thereof, has been one of the deficiencies to his game and it was made apparent in Florida’s aggressive defensive style. In Mike White’s defense he wants his point guards to be physical at the point of attack, right into the jersey of opposing guards steering them away from their preferred course of action. Chris Chiozza and Kasey Hill were spectacular at this, but Nembhard’s rigid hips and slightly slow feet made him unable to provide that level of ball pressure. Additionally, in a help side role players are forced to be aggressive. The Gators do everything possible to limit their opponent’s three-point shots and that means aggressive closeouts to run shooters off the line. Those aggressive closeouts on the ball means the other four players are left scrambling to cover ground, something that requires dynamic foot speed and change of direction. Not exactly Nembhard’s forte.

Luckily for him, Gonzaga plays a much more conservative style of defense. The Bulldogs are a “pack line” man to man defensive team, a style with many intricacies but one that, in most basic terms, has help defenders one pass away sagging into the lane to provide help on dribble penetration. This is a far less aggressive style of defense than Florida played and it’s one that’s going to help hide Nembhard’s athleticism deficit as he isn’t going to be required to sprint around the floor playing aggressively. As well, Gonzaga is a team that switches off the ball heavily and Nembhard will be able to stay near the point position of the floor defensively for large stretches of possessions where he can utilize his height to deter passing angles from his opponents.

Nembhard’s fit with the Bulldogs is incredibly logical on both sides of the floor. Everything points to this being a good fit for him and it’s easy to see why he chose Gonzaga. Pointing out the differences in how Gonzaga plays versus how Florida plays isn’t to suggest one style is better than the other—it’s more of an interesting study and a postmortem of why Nembhard’s career in Gainesville didn’t end the way everyone might have hoped. By looking at why Nembhard’s skillset didn’t precisely fit what Florida wanted to do we can look at the fit of future players and see why they might fit the scheme perfectly, or not at all.

For two years Nembhard gave his all for the Gators and we wish him all the best at Gonzaga.

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.

1 COMMENT