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On the strengths of Andrew Nembhard’s weak hand

The right-handed shooter might be as good, or better, moving to his left.

Indiana Pacers v Charlotte Hornets Photo by Eakin Howard/Getty Images

There’s a wily quirkiness to the way in which Andrew Nembhard, as a right-handed shooter, manipulates the pick-and-roll. To understand why, look no further than this possession from late in the first half against the New York Knicks. With just over three minutes to play and the Pacers trailing by nine, notice how Jalen Brunson’s body is positioned to prevent the rookie ball-handler from using the screen on the right, effectively forcing him to his left.

As a result, Nembhard is confined to one side of the floor and ends up misfiring on a step-back, mid-range two.

Nothing to see here, right? All things considered, this is a desirable outcome for the Knicks. Or, at least so it would seem through the lens of only that one specific play. On the whole, Nembhard’s shot was fickle during preseason. He had some pure swishes, like when he scored 13 points during the fourth quarter of Wednesday’s comeback win over New York, but he also had a handful of far off, all-glass misses, particularly amid his 1-of-8 shooting performance against the Houston Rockets. That said, in addition to some of those wild swings in shot-accuracy, another trend seemed to emerge: As a pull-up shooter, he was more comfortable going to his left, both in volume and conversion rate.

Overall, he only attempted 23 off-the-dribble jumpers in 76 minutes of preseason action, so small sample size obviously factors into that split disparity, but other subtle aspects of his game also point toward the comparative strengths of his supposedly weak hand.

Screen Direction

Just look at how often the Pacers run actions for him to get to his left. When he’s dribbling downhill off a double drag, the screens are in many cases set for him to drive left.

When the Pacers are running stack action, the ball screen is also oftentimes set for him to drive left.

Or, how about when he’s just playing spread pick-and-roll? Yep, in a whole slew of cases, particularly when Goga Bitadze pops, the ball-screen is once again set to Nembhard’s left.

To a certain extent, this also even applies to some of the team’s more nuanced set plays, especially as it pertains to wrinkles. This season, the Pacers have a lot of outcomes that spawn from UCLA cuts, when a player cuts toward the basket by way of a back-screen set by a high post player. Sometimes, the guard making the cut, first initiated by a pass to the wing, will go set a flex screen in the opposite corner. In other instances, after ghosting that flex screen, the guard will then follow the progression of the offense, receiving a pindown followed by a hand-off, as an entry into what is commonly referred to as Chicago action.

Nembhard, though, has also been deployed in a few other ways. Here, for example, the play once again begins with a UCLA cut, but notice how he stays on the same side of the floor, circling in a chase behind the player he passed to at the wing, effectively allowing him to round the corner into empty side pick-and-roll with his left.

Likewise, the Pacers have an option where he fakes the UCLA cut and instead curls back to the top of the key, almost like he’s hooking a button in front of the ball. Given the propensity for some defenders to turn their backs to the ball when defending against cuts, there’s a chance he might be open coming back underneath the action or could set a curl pick for the big to shoot in future iterations. If nothing else, he is yet again set-up to attack moving to his left, showcasing his affinity for reading the weak-side help and throwing zippy cross-court passes over his right shoulder.

Screen Rejection

Don’t get it twisted. None of this is to say that there aren’t instances where the Pacers set screens for Nembhard on his right. After all, look at some of those button hook plays or think back to the first clip in this article. That’s why Brunson was weaking him, remember? Moreover, there are also situations where setting a screen for him to drive right is critical to connecting the pick-and-roll to the optimization of the next action. For example, in curling a pindown off some veer action from Jackson, Mathurin is able to get rolling downhill with his strong hand because Nembhard also dribbled to his right off the ball screen.

As such, what’s more notable about the screens that are set on his right isn’t that they exist but rather how, and for what purpose, they are used. Because, here’s the thing: there’s a fair amount of those screens on his right that don’t actually get used, as he seems to prefer rejection as his first option. To be fair, most pick-and-roll coverages are built around and most effective when the ball-handler uses the screen, so mastering the reject can be an instant coverage killer. But, the way he goes about it still seems telling. As in, he doesn’t just capitalize on the mistakes made by his defender (be it an adjusted stance, turned head, or lack of ball pressure), he intentionally searches for means by which to shift his defender, using foot fakes and jab steps as misdirection to attack into the advantage with his left.

Here, by evidence of Isaiah Jackson very nearly rolling into the path of the ball, Nembhard even manages to fool his own teammate while still managing to salvage the play.

Screen usage

Even so, as the splits on his pull-up shooting go to show, he is more likely to pull the trigger going left off-the-dribble than right. That tendency is reinforced by the film, as there are moments when, while driving in the latter direction, it is seems as though he is reticent to shoot, doing so only as a last resort after exhausting his other pass-first options.

Rather than turning the corner to his right and looking to score, he is generally more likely to survey, at times, waiting a beat to see what develops. In some instances, that’s where his canny patience shines, wowing with assists at the rim after momentarily pressing pause.

And yet, in certain circumstances, he can also appear pressed in forcing the defense to commit and those zippy cross-court darts lose some of their crispness when delivered solely with his right, especially by comparison to the snap he exhibits with his left.

Meanwhile, if you are who you are when no one is looking, look at what hand he is dribbling with at his most casual and unabated as he brings the ball up the right side of the floor and waits for the screen (on his left!). Then, also make note of RJ Barrett, who even as a lefty, crosses over half-court in the same space with his right — as is the more common norm.

Overall, this shouldn’t be taken as the book on Andrew Nembhard. As a rookie, he has yet to even write the first page of his story. But, as a right-handed shooter, there is reason to wonder if, ironically, he is better maneuvering with and to his left, perhaps providing prologue to an unexpected idiosyncrasy where — in looking back at how he was defended by Brunson — he in some respects is made stronger when he is weaked.