MONTVERDE — The year-old plaque remains inside the basketball offices at Montverde Academy.
It reads — Boys Varsity Basketball, Perseverance Award, Andrew Nembhard, 2016-17.
Florida fans know Nembhard as a flashy, 6-foot-4, Canadian point guard, the first five-star signee in Mike White’s three-year tenure as UF coach and the possible heir apparent to Chris Chiozza heading into the 2018-19 season.
On a March night in 2017, though, Nembhard’s burgeoning basketball dreams were put on hold. Following an afternoon workout, Nembhard bought a slice of pizza at the deli down the street from the school’s campus and couldn’t hold it down. At first, trainers thought he was dehydrated.
But as the vomiting persisted, Nembhard was rushed to Arnold Palmer Children’s Hospital in Orlando. Surgery revealed Nembhard was dealing with volvulus, a rare condition that causes the intestines to twist. Nembhard had a portion of his intestines removed during the procedure and went into septic shock.
Nembhard had already dealt with trying to play through a stress fracture in his foot, which forced him in and out of the lineup during his junior year at Montverde. But being away at school for the first time, more than 1,300 miles from his native Aurora, Ontario, Nembhard was in a more serious, life-threatening situation.
“It was a trying time,” Nembhard’s father, Claude, said. “But you find out how important it is to celebrate life.”
After a touch-and-go first weekend in Orlando, Nembhard was stabilized, then air-lifted to Sickkids Hospital in Toronto, where he spent the next three weeks recovering. He lost 21 pounds. He watched from his hospital bed as Montverde fell short of its goal of winning a prep national title.
“It was just tough, watching, we didn’t win it but we did better than people thought we would do,” Nembhard said. “So I was just proud of my guys. I wanted to come back even stronger and win one this year.”
By the following summer, Nembhard fully recovered, gaining the weight he lost back while starring on the Nike EYBL basketball circuit. He achieved his first dream the following November by signing a letter of intent to play college basketball at Florida. Then, earlier this month, Nembhard made good on his promise by helping lead star-laden Montverde to its fourth prep national championship, dishing 13 assists with no turnovers in the title game.
“Winning the national championship was just kind of like the icing on top of the cake,” Nembhard said.
The next chapter
In two months, Nembhard will arrive on UF’s campus for the second summer session. He’s the highest rated (26th nationally according to ESPN.com) of the three incoming Florida freshmen, which includes 6-6 wing player Keyontae Johnson (67th nationally ESPN.com) and 6-2 shooting guard Noah Locke (70th nationally, ESPN.com).
“We talk on social media every so often,” Nembhard said. “We’re going to get to know each other a lot when we go down in the summer. But I just feel like we’ve got a great group of guys coming in, nice guys that are tough and kind of driven to win.”
Nembhard describes himself as soft-spoken and humble, with an inner competitive drive. Nembhard said his favorite NBA player is Kevin Durant, because he believes he shares similar attributes to the Golden State Warriors star. As a point guard, Nembhard said he doesn’t pattern his game after a particular player.
“Kyrie Irving, Chris Paul, James Harden how they come off the ball screen, they are just really smart with their decision making,” Nembhard said. “I like Tyler Ennis, Corey Joseph some Canadian guys to name a few.”
As for the challenge of replacing Chiozza, who finished his career as UF’s all-time leader in assists with 571, Nembhard replied: “I’m excited to try to do half of what he did because he was a great player over there, he did a lot for the program. So I just want to come in there and try to do a little portion of what he did.”
Nembhard said he hasn’t been assured of a starting position and knows he will need to work hard in the summer and fall to earn his spot.
“I’m hoping to get as much playing time as my team needs,” Nembhard said. “Whatever the team needs. Whatever coach thinks is best for the team. If it’s zero minutes, if it’s the whole game, whatever coach thinks.”
If Nembhard wins the starting job, he’d be the tallest UF point guard since Nick Calathes, who at 6-6 dished a season-record 231 assists in 2008-09.
“It’s just a little bit of an advantage to be bigger than most of the guys in my position, just being able to see over the defense, being more longer on defense,” Nembhard said.
White said the competition to replace Chiozza at the point will be open heading into the summer and fall, with senior KeVaughn Allen, sophomore Mike Okauru and Nembhard as the three candidates.
“We know what we have in Mike and KeVaughn,” White said. “Andrew will come in and be hands down the best passer in the program. He’s a really quick thinker. He’s a really, really bright kid. And he’s been prepared. He’s won a lot of games at a high level.”
Nembhard said he intends to spend the rest of the spring working on all aspects of his game, including being a more vocal leader at the point, finishing at the rim over bigger defenders and his jump shot.
“The summer before my senior year I worked a lot on my shot,” Nembhard said. “Every single day that was my main focus, was my jump shot. So I feel like my percentage increased a lot my senior year. I also think it’s confidence with me, I feel like when I play with more confidence it’s going to go down more for me.”
On the other end of the court, Nembhard said he takes pride in his defense and is looking forward to playing in White’s man-to-man, switching scheme.
“I’m a pretty good on-the-ball defender, trying to develop off the ball, knowing reads and stuff like that,” Nembhard said. “I think in college I could guard 1 to 3 (small forward), maybe even 4 (power forward) sometimes. So I think I’ll be versatile in that sense.”
A willing passer
Like Chiozza, Nembhard said he gets as much satisfaction setting up teammates as he does scoring himself. That mindset was developed at an early age.
Nembhard’s father has served as his son’s coach since he was 3. One of the first drills he taught Andrew was to keep his head up when receiving a pass.
“A lot of kids when they catch the ball, they want to pound it two or three times and when Andrew catches the ball his first tendency is to look up and he looks to see if someone is open,” Claude Nembhard said.
Because Andrew was taller, even as a younger child, Claude often had his son play a grade level or two up.
“When you are playing with older kids, to be accepted, you have to pass the ball,” Claude said. “And that’s a big part of his decision making. He’s used to playing with older kids and if you don’t pass the ball, you can’t play with them.”
Nembhard also played soccer growing up, and as a center midfielder and junior national team prospect, developed a similar knack for seeing the field and making quick decisions to set up his teammates. He gave up playing soccer in seventh grade to focus on playing basketball full time.
“Like in basketball, his role was to pass the ball,” Claude said.
This past season at Montverde, Nembhard averaged 10 points, eight assists, five rebounds and two steals. His coach at Montverde, Kevin Boyle, challenged him throughout the season to become a more vocal leader.
“In 30 years of coaching elite high school players — Andrew is as mature and selfless of a player that I have coached,” Boyle said. “He will be one of the great leaders and elite point guards in college basketball. Andrew is a great person on and off the court.”
Certainly, Nembhard will face expectations, and perhaps even pressure, in coming to campus as a five-star recruit and Chiozza’s possible replacement.
“He’s a very mature kid and he’s been through a life-changing event,” Claude said. “So my son as you’ll get to know, is very even keel and very calm. He’s handled pressure.”
Nembhard said he’s just looking forward to getting to Florida and proving to coaches he can handle whatever role is expected of him.
“Personally I don’t feel any pressure, to be honest,” Nembhard said. “I feel like when I go there, if I play confident, I’ll be fine. So I’m just excited to getting down there and kind of doing whatever we can to win some games.”