How Andrew Nembhard has already wowed the Pacers

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After calmly knocking down a buzzer-beating three to send his
team to victory over the Los Angeles Lakers at Staples Center,
Indiana Pacers rookie Andrew Nembhard received a wave of praise and
compliments all around. But the strongest words came from his head
coach.

“He’ll go down as a top-12 or 15 pick when it’s all said and
done,” Rick Carlisle stated on Nov. 28 about the No. 31 overall
selection this past summer. “It’s where he should have been
taken.”

Eight days later at Golden State, following Nembhard’s
career-high 31-point, 13-assist effort against Stephen Curry and
the Warriors, Carlisle doubled down: “I’m elevating that to top-10.
He really is a special player.”

On Friday morning in Cleveland, Nemhbard shared what he thought
of Carlisle’s commendable comments.

“It just shows you the confidence they have in me on the court,
and it allows me to have confidence in myself,” Nembhard told
Basketball News. “I don’t want to get too wrapped into the words,
but obviously, it fuels the confidence in me for sure.”

Nembhard has plenty of reasons to believe in himself, In
December, he is averaging 11.0 points, 5.1 assists and 4.0 rebounds
to go with 1.2 steals over 10 games with .489/.366/.778 shooting
splits — nothing to gloss over for a first-year player. However,
it’s not about flashy statistics with him.

The very reason he got on the court in the first place is
because of what he showed Indiana on the defensive end during
training camp and preseason. Then, when Chris Duarte got injured in
early November, the team looked his way to step up — and he’s
continued to reward that decision from that point on.

“As we got into the year, he got tossed into a couple of games
early,” Carlisle said. “He had tough matchups; the first time we
played Miami, he guarded [Tyler] Herro some and was able to stay in
front of him and contest some of his shots well.”

That game was a sign of things to come. Since then, Nembhard has
been tasked with going head-to-head with the NBA’s best. Have a
look at a sample of who the 22-year-old has matched up with the
most and how they’ve fared, per NBA.com’s matchup data:

  • Stephen Curry: 2-for-7 with 3 turnovers in 11:36 (two
    games)
  • Kyle Kuzma: 4-for-9 with 2 turnovers in 7:48 (two games)
  • Jimmy Butler: 1-for-6 for 4 points with 1 block in 7:17
  • CJ McCollum: 2-for-4 for 6 points in 6:38
  • Damian Lillard: 2-for-5 for 5 points in 6:13
  • Jamal Murray: 2-for-8 with 1 turnover in 5:53
  • Scottie Barnes: 1-for-4 for 2 points in 5:39
  • Jalen Brunson: 5-for-9 for 11 points in 5:12 (Nembhard’s worst
    output)
  • Darius Garland: 0 field goal attempts with 2 turnovers in
    5:09
  • LeBron James: 0-for-4 with 1 block in 4:32

“It’s exciting man,” Nembhard told Basketball News of the
Pacers’ trust in him on that end. “Personally, I’ve got so much
confidence in my game that it’s just like, I felt like I could do
that. I like to compete, so that’s something I just like to bring
to the game every day, and I’m super happy that they’ve just
allowed me to kinda do that and help the team in that way.”

“He’s a guy that if you watch him within the defensive system,
he always seems to be in the right place,” Carlisle said. “He’s
very aware and does a good job of blocking out. He does a good job
of chipping blockouts, which means going and helping a big guy.
Like [Friday], when Myles [Turner] is blocking out [Jarrett] Allen,
his job is to go be the second guy, to try to take away his
athletic step and stuff like that. And Drew just naturally does
that stuff.”

Backing Carlisle’s words, film savant Caiitlin Cooper of SB
Nation’s Indy Cornrows provided another example of the little
things that Nembhard does on that end.

“I’m just like beyond impressed with the poise and maturity that
he showed,” Pacers veteran point guard T.J. McConnell told
Basketball News. “Asking him to come off the bench and then start,
play a certain amount of minutes and guard the best players while
you’re out there, usually you don’t have enough energy to do it on
both ends, but he’s done it… unreal. He’s been unreal on both
ends this year, and it’s been a joy to watch.”

According to McConnell, what Nembhard is putting on display now
is what he saw over the offseason in the first few games of pickup.
Admittedly, the 30-year-old didn’t know it would translate for him
this way, this seamlessly.

“You kinda get so used to playing against someone, then you saw
him do it against other NBA guys and do it consistently. When he
just continued to do it, continued to do it, I’m like, ‘This dude
is the real deal,’” McConnell said. “You saw it from the beginning,
but you didn’t know how it was gonna adjust from an NBA season
[standpoint], and he has hit the ground running and hasn’t looked
back. Just very proud. I see the work he puts in and the type of
guy he is. Extremely happy for him.”

Though tending to use the trusted pull-up game he excelled at as
a high schooler and an underclassman at Florida, Nembhard has
started to become a ready catch-shooter over the last few years at
Gonzaga and, now, with the Pacers, converting on a healthy 36.4% on
the season overall despite some inconsistencies in December. At the
very least, he’s a threat, which allows him to drive off the catch
and go from there.

Nembhard’s also moved the ball with ease, constantly making
touch passes and heady reads. It helps that he’s had reps as a
handler and away from the ball already this early into his
career.

“I think it’s similar honestly in terms of where I get the
ball,” Nembhard said. “I’m still just playmaking off of our pace,
stuff that we still do. So similar touches, just not bringing the
ball up as much. Just not directing as much.

“I think the way it’s been so far has been good for me to just
ease into getting comfortable on the court. I don’t think I need it
to be the primary guy right off the bat just ’cause that’s tough as
a rookie. I think they’ve allowed me to kinda grow and develop and
slowly get to the point where I feel comfortable being in that
primary role at times.”

And to that point, Nembhard has been right at home with these
fast-and-furious Pacers, who boast the league’s fifth-highest pace
at 102.26 possessions per game.

“I think I’ve been a guy who’s been able to play well in
transition because of my assist-to-turnover ratio,” Nembhard said.
“I feel like playing fast has just always been something about my
game that I’ve succeeded at, so it’s natural for me. I think for
us, a young team, I think with our energy and our effort, it plays
into our strengths.”

(Per Cleaning the Glass, his 1:29
assist-to-usage rate is in the 95th percentile among his peers in
the league, additionally, and his 117.3 points per 100 shot
attempts illustrates his efficiency.)

Nembhard’s fellow rookie Bennedict Mathurin is garnering rave
reviews as a real-deal Sixth Man of the Year candidate, and Tyrese
Haliburton has upped his game to another level where he’s leading
the entire NBA in assists. Together as a trio this month, they’ve
combined for a net rating of plus-23.7 in 76 minutes.

“I think me and Hali are good at playmaking and just like
reading the game, and I think Benn’s an aggressive scorer who’s
just confident in himself,” Nembhard said. “So we look for him. I
think it’s easy for him to play with both of us. I think we just
flow well together just ’cause of our mix of skill and talent.”

For these two rookies to be developing and producing at the same
time is one thing, but to do it and rack up W’s on a competitive,
15-win Indiana ball club that few on the outside saw coming is
remarkable.

“Man, it’s exciting honestly. Personally, I love winning,”
Nembhard said. “Ain’t nothing like winning in basketball to be
around that team environment. So that’s a big plus, and I’m excited
we’re doing what we’re doing so far. It’s always early… But, I’m
super excited I’ve been able to get on the floor and just help
impact that winning.”

“Got a lot of respect for Mathurin and Nembhard, two rookies who
really like, talk. Like, they’re there. Like, they make their
presence felt,” Donovan Mitchell said postgame Friday.
“…Nembhard’s had pretty big games against some good teams.”

“This is obviously probably the youngest locker room I’ve been a
part of, and one of the best, if not the best. Just the positive
energy each day and the youthful energy that everyone brings,”
McConnell added. “I’m only 30, so when I say youthful energy, it’s
just ’cause everyone else isn’t as old (laughs). But it’s been
great. [Through the] ups and downs of a season, we’ve stuck
together. And I think that not a lot of people expected us to have
the record we do now, and I think that’s because of the tightness
of the locker room.”

As Carlisle made his aforementioned top-10 comment, he described
Nembhard as “old school, but new-school.” Basketball News followed
up on what he meant by that.

“Well, he’s tough, physical. He plays an efficient game,”
Carlisle explained. “He has a natural aptitude for moving the ball
and finding people and just getting to the pass that leads to the
hockey assist. And he just has a real, pure intellect for the game;
that’s the old-school side. The new-school side is he’s probably on
social media like everybody else (laughs).

“But he understands the style of today’s NBA. At Gonzaga, they
did some things as a team where, a lot of times, they played an NBA
style. They played up-tempo, a lot of ball movement, not a lot of
play-calling — play the game, play with each other, play random,
find the best shot — all that kind of stuff.”

Month-by-month, Nembhard has gotten better. You can see the jump
happening in both the box scores and on the floor in
general. 

And maybe of the utmost importance, he is learning what life in
the NBA is like.

“It’s just so much talent in this league,” Nembhard said.
“You’ve gotta bring it every night. You could be playing against
their best five, (but) the next six are still NBA players who can
hoop. So it’s like, there’s not a night off in this league. Any
team can beat anybody with a certain attitude, a certain demeanor
every night.

“I really don’t know how to nitpick his game. He’s been
unbelievable on both ends,” McConnell said. “Maybe one thing is
just try to stay out of foul trouble. But when you’re guarding the
best players, it’s impossible not to pick up a foul here and there.
But like, on the offensive and defensive end, he’s been damn near
close to perfect, and that’s asking a lot of a rookie. He
definitely doesn’t play like one.”





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