Can Andrew Nembhard be the next Jalen Brunson?

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Andrew Nembhard, Indiana Pacers.

Key Highlights:

  • In the last two games, Nembhard averaged 28 PPG and 9.5 APG on 68% true shooting and 27.1% usage. For the entire playoffs (17 games), he averaged 14.9 PPG and 5.5 APG on 65.4% true shooting and 17.7% usage.
  • Nembhard combines a refined drive game with great passing, midrange touch, and perimeter defense.
  • Nembhard isn’t nearly the offensive engine that Brunson or Haliburton are, but he is a much better defender than both of them.

After falling behind 2-0 to the Boston Celtics, the Indiana Pacers season looked cooked, especially after it looked like Tyrese Haliburton – the team’s All-NBA showman – would be down for the count moving forward.

Two games later, and it turns out that the bleak clouds were indeed a signal for an incoming storm, the Pacers dropped Games 3 and 4 en route to a series sweep. However, those games weren’t blowouts. The Pacers lost each game by three points, holding leads deep into the fourth quarter of both competitions. They stayed competitive despite not having their best player. But how? 

Two words: Andrew Nembhard. After losing his All-NBA teammate, the second-year combo guard rose to the occasion, averaging 28 PPG and 9.5 APG on 68% true shooting and 27.1% usage. 

This two-game run, coupled with his excellent postseason debut (14.9 PPG and 5.5 APG on 65.4% true shooting and 17.7% usage in 17 games), has many people dreaming about Nembhard’s future. So, just how good can Nembhard actually be?

A Flawed Scorer With Fancy Footwork

The strongest part of Nembhard’s arsenal is his drive game. In the regular season, he placed in the 83rd percentile in drives volume and the 60th percentile in drives efficiency (per the Thinking Basketball database). And in the playoffs, he leveled up his efficiency to the point where he now sits in the 82nd percentile in true shooting on drives.

However, numbers alone don’t tell the whole story with Nembhard. To truly capture his downhill splendor, you need to spend some time with the tape. There, you will see a masterclass in footwork, stride length, changes in speed, body control, and physicality.

Now, Nembhard’s drive game isn’t perfect. He relies greatly on his right hand, lacks the ability to explode at the rim, and doesn’t always get all the way to the basket before finishing (29th percentile in rim attempts per 75 possessions, per Dunks & Threes). But his craft and strength enable him to overcome these obstacles and turn what should be a weakness into one of his greatest strengths.

Since he can’t pressure the paint like he’s Ja Morant, Nembhard often has to rely on his midrange game to get the job done. Fortunately for Nembhard, he’s an elite midrange scorer – placing in the 79th percentile in midrange volume and 92nd percentile in midrange efficiency during the regular season.

[Sidebar #1: Nembhard is particularly adept in the short midrange. During the regular season, he placed in the 84th percentile in short midrange frequency and 76th percentile in short midrange accuracy among combo guards, per Cleaning the Glass.]

Nembhard’s 3-point shooting isn’t as cut and dry. In the playoffs, he hit 48.3% of his 3-point attempts. That’s an awesome mark, but if history is any indication, it isn’t one that is very sustainable. In his two NBA seasons and four college seasons, Nembhard attempted a combined 871 3-point shots. In that span, he converted on only 34.8% of those attempts.

Can Nembhard parlay his hot stretch into a better 3-point percentage? His midrange percentages demonstrate that he certainly has the touch for it. But if he can’t, that becomes a major limiting factor in his scoring arsenal.

If he can’t start getting to the rim more or become a more impressive perimeter shooter, Nembhard will need to be better at grifting free throw attempts (14th percentile in free throw attempts per 75 this season). His great body control and convincing pump fake should give him an edge here, but for now, we are still in wait and see mode. Even during his breakout playoff run, Nembhard was only averaging 1.8 free throws per 75 (just 0.7 free throw attempts more than he had in the regular season).

A Great Passer, But No Haliburton

Despite spending a large chunk of the season playing off-guard next to Haliburton, Nembhard mostly ran the point in high school and college. As a result, he was able to seamlessly transition into an on-ball role in Games 3 and 4 (hence his 19 assists in those two games).

As is the case with his drive game, the tape is very kind to Nembhard’s passing prowess. It illustrates his ability to quickly identify mismatches in the post (first clip in the montage below), push the pace with hit-ahead passes (second clip), spray kickouts to shooters on the outside (third), hit interior passes for layup passes (fourth), and beam skip passes after properly reading where the help is coming from (fifth).

Still, Nembhard’s passing/playmaking abilities shouldn’t yet be classified in the elite category. From time to time, his instincts and feel fail him, which can make him a beat late with his timing.

Take this clip, for instance. Nembhard makes the right overall decision by hitting Turner on the roll. However, he probably should have taken an extra dribble to make Xavier Tillman, the screener defender on the play, further commit to his drive. This would have made it harder for Tillman to rotate back to Turner and less likely that the Boston big could have broken up the play.

These subtleties are captured by metrics like Ben Taylor’s Passer Rating statistic (an estimate of a player’s passing ability on anapproximately1-10 scale). This season, Nembhard was in the 82nd percentile in Passer Rating. That’s an admirable finish, but a far cry from his teammate, the aforementioned Haliburton, who placed in the 100th percentile in that category.

Perimeter Pitbull

While Nembhard may not be the offensive juggernaut that his backcourt running mate is, Nembhard makes up for it with his contributions to the defensive side of the ball. He’s a strong defensive playmaker (72nd percentile in steal rate) with solid positional size (6’4) and a strong understanding of defensive schemes and fundamentals. Overall, Defensive Estimated Plus-Minus (which is, for my money, the best defensive one-number metric) has him as an 88th percentile defender this season.

[Sidebar #2: As a team, the Pacers defense is 4.4 points stingier per 100 possessions when Nembhard is on the floor than when he is on the bench (84th percentile).]

While one-number metrics aren’t perfect, I think that DEF EPM does a good job of quantifying Nembhard’s defensive value. Nembhard is a very good guard defender, but he’s not an All-Defensive caliber team one (like Alex Caruso or Derrick White).

We kind of saw this against the New York Knicks in the conference semifinals when, coincidentally enough, Jalen Brunson gave him the business time and time again. According to matchup data, Brunson was 26-for-39 (66.7%) on field goal attempts when Nembhard was his primary defender.

To be fair, Brunson gives most people the business. So, we can’t use that as too much of a demerit on his abilities as a defender. But what does really hurt him is his size. Earlier, we said he has solid positional size. That was an intentional choice of words. Nembhard’s size for a guard is solid but not great. And given his status as a guard, that means he’s prone to attacks from bigger wings/forwards. Like this bulldoze from Jaylen Brown in Game 4:

Is Nembhard The Next Brunson?

Now that we have a good understanding of Nembhard’s game, let’s get back to the original question: can Nembhard breakout in a way that’s similar to what Brunson has done these last two years?

First off, I should mention why I am comparing these two specifically. They are both guards who spent three or more years in college. They both played at prestigious schools that gave them plenty of chances to play in big games (Brunson at Villanova, Nembhard at Florida, and then Gonzaga). Their “older” age (Brunson 21, and Nembhard 22) coming out of college hurt their draft status, leading to both of them being selected early in the second round. And lastly, they are both highly cerebral players that lean on their craftiness and intellect to succeed.

As we’ve outlined above, Nembhard has a ways to go before he can ever hope to become the offensive engine that Brunson (0r Haliburton) is. But he also provides value on the other side of the ball that far exceeds anything Brunson (or Haliburton, again) has to offer.

Moving forward, the areas to watch for Nembhard will be his passing/decision-making, rim/3-point shooting, free throw drawing, and usage. Can Nembhard level up as an on-ball creator with more repetitions? Will he learn to get to the rim more frequently or convert his 3-pointers at a higher percentage? If not, can he manipulate the game in a way that will garner him more shots at the charity stripe? And if his usage does go up, can Nembhard maintain respectable offensive efficiency and good defensive effort?

To be honest, I don’t have an exact answer to all these questions. If I did, I’d sell the information off to the highest-bidding front office. What I can say, though, is that Nembhard’s brilliant playoff flashes, high skill level, and unique two-way ceiling for a floor general give him a real chance at one day blossoming into an All-Star caliber player.