TORONTO — Over the course of the first two days of Canada’s men’s senior team basketball camp at OVO Athletic Centre, head coach Nick Nurse raved about the FIBA experience at his disposal and the ability of his players to pick things up in a hurry.
Cory Joseph and Kelly Olynyk were his standouts, referring to them as the backbone, but he spread praise across the veterans. When naming those who surprised him, though, it was Andrew Nembhard’s name that made the list of two (the other being Kevin Pangos). He didn’t go into specifics of why the 19-year-old impressed him so much, but indicated that Nembhard did enough to earn meaningful playing time in the exhibition game against Nigeria.
And there he was, with Canada in a one-possession game, running the point as the experienced campaigners Joseph, Brady Heslip and Pangos looked on from the sidelines. He got to the free-throw line once, then did it again as Nigeria thought it did enough in denying Khem Birch — who was excellent — an entry feed or Kyle Wiltjer space to shoot. As the attention came his way, he quickly led Birch to the basket off some pick-and-roll action up top, which ended in a slam for the Orlando Magic centre. To cap it off, Nembhard hit a midrange jumper to seal the deal.
Playing the final five minutes of an exhibition may not count for much to some, but with veterans looking on, it was easy to see that Nembhard understands the essence of running a team and righting the ships as things start to look awry.
“He was great,” Nurse said after the game. “That’s kind of what he’s looked like in practice. He’s kind of a guy that can make plays and create and get his own. He plays with a really good demeanour. He doesn’t play like a young kid and he just kind of does his thing and takes his openings when they’re there.
“Kind of came into this game planning to play him more than I did, but I think that group in the second quarter hogged all the minutes by playing so well.”
Nembhard finished with eight points, two assists, a rebound and a plus-12 in his 10 minutes of action, but the fact that a chunk of those minutes came late in the fourth quarter adds a bit more depth to what Nurse will be able to take away from the showing.
Here’s a kid who is understanding of but unfazed by time and score, can defend multiple positions (Nurse thinks he can stretch Nembard out to the three in certain situations), and doesn’t look to take on more than he can shoulder. Canada has some reliable shooting at the guard position led by Heslip and complemented by Pangos and Joseph, so it will likely come down to whether Nurse has a preference for the 25-year-old Kaza Kajami-Keane and his rugged defence as well as leadership at the point of attack or Nembhard’s versatility and the potential long-term value of giving the kid a taste of serious international competition.
Nembhard’s decision to return to the Florida Gators for a sophomore season shows he acknowledges there’s still more he needs to add to his game to be ready for a pro level, but the experience he can take from being on the plane to Australia — and China after that — and learn from the likes of Joseph, Heslip and Pangos, not to mention Nurse, could serve Canada well beyond just the next tournament or two.
There’s plenty of young talent that skipped out on this opportunity — Jamal Murray, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Nickeil Alexander-Walker most notably at the guard position, but here’s a kid who is here and has looked every bit like he belongs.
In what capacity is a question for another day, but what Nembhard has shown through three days is that there’s much more to be gained than lost from having him at the World Cup in three weeks.
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