Ryan Nembhard is no stranger to the hype Creighton is getting. He’s been there before

On Montverde Academy basketball’s picture day in 2019, 16-year-old Ryan Nembhard stood centered among the group as the glaring outlier. His small frame left his head level with his teammates’ chins, his shoulders adjacent to their chests.

To his right were two eventual NBA draft picks. To his left, three. In total, four first-rounders — three lottery picks — two of which were top-five selections.

Aside from them, scattered throughout the group were eventual Michigan, Duke and Baylor commits. And of course, Nembhard — ninth man for a team that dominated like few groups ever.

Twenty point blowouts by halftime, mercy ruling the nation’s best programs and casually putting on in-game dunk contests to pass the time during fourth quarters. Montverde played teams like it was NBA 2K on rookie difficulty.

“You can make a very convincing argument that that was the best high school team ever,” said Kevin Boyle, coach for the prep school based in Florida.

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With talent like that came a pecking order. Nembhard watched his role shift each year.

The highs, the lows, taking everything on the chin with pride. He learned to eat those jabs while being constantly compared to his elite older brother while attempting to make his own name.

All of it forged the player he is now.

Three years later, Nembhard might sense some déjà vu. Creighton has widely been pegged as a top-10 team and will field perhaps the most talented squad in program history. This time, the Big East’s reigning freshman of the year will have a greater hold on his team’s fate.

The program could transcend to new heights. Or it could come crashing down like Jenga before it even takes shape.

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“Expectations are nothing until you really prove them,” Nembhard said.

It depends on how readily each individual accepts his role — which is liable to change each game — on such a star-studded team. Nembhard will have to shapeshift based on what’s necessary, but he might be ahead of the curve.

After all, he has been here before.

There were no backboards. Back when Nembhard began hooping around age 3, scoring in the Ontario house league he played in required kids to hit a red target on a wall.

It was more running around than it was basketball. But his father, Claude, coached. So Ryan’s older brother, Andrew, played. It only made sense Ryan followed suit.

He looked on as Claude would coach Andrew. Separated by three years, Ryan always found himself a step behind his brother.

He would team up with his father against Andrew, playing games to 11 on the Little Tikes rim in their basement. There was a catch. Little bro had to score the last basket to win.

That’s where the competitive fire between them was lit.







Young Ryan and Andrew

Ryan Nembhard would team up with his father against Andrew, playing games to 11 on the Little Tikes rim in their basement. There was a catch. Little bro had to score the last basket to win.




Claude recalls replacing a lot of broken lights and furniture after those games. Andrew won most of them, bullying Ryan as big brothers tend to do.

When Ryan came out on top, the entire house never heard the end of it.

As Claude would put it, his youngest son was a “feisty, aggressive little guy.” Small enough to always have to play point guard because he couldn’t quite score. Big enough to talk his stuff through the years.

“Ryan’s a pitbull,” Claude said. “If you want to go to war and fight, you want to bring him with you.”

Nothing brings that dawg out of Ryan more than a back-and-forth exchange. He won’t let an opponent say something to him on the floor without responding. He remembers those who talk to him midgame.

If provoked, he’ll jaw for 40 minutes. On quiet days, he’ll toss out comments here and there to get himself going. He figures opponents think he’s soft.

“Because I’m light skinned,” he joked.

No one can get him yapping quite like Andrew, who knew exactly which buttons to push.

When the two grew too big for the basement, they moved to the driveway. The neighbors would head inside as soon as the two stepped outside. They knew what was coming.

There’s one particular game that Ryan can laugh at now. By the end of it, Ryan was throwing rocks and swinging bats at his brother. Andrew brought his blood to a boil.

Basketball, bike riding, video games. Ryan wanted to beat his brother in anything he could. He was mad when he couldn’t.

So he continued to push even harder, butting heads with Andrew because he wanted to be better than him.

The opponent who drove him sleepless slept under the same roof. In turn, Ryan never lacked confidence.

The heart to zoom through traffic with his 6-foot frame, weaving among the trees. The guts to pull up for 25-footers without hesitation. The audacity to leap with defenders for slams. It all started in the driveway with his brother.

“I feel like playing against Andrew is just preparing me for anything,” Ryan said. “I don’t feel like there’s a lot of players in college basketball that are gonna give me a tougher challenge than my brother.”

When Ryan reached high school, Andrew was selected for the Jordan Brand Classic as Montverde’s five-star point guard. When Ryan came into his own at MVA, Andrew was playing in the 2021 national championship game with Gonzaga. 

Now Ryan is being asked to help lead a talented squad in the Big East while Andrew was just drafted by the Indiana Pacers.

“Being the younger brother has always been challenging for him,” Claude said. “He’s always had to work a little harder, probably.”







Teenage Ryan and Andrew

“He’s my No. 1 influence,” Ryan Nembhard said. “I feel like, in my life, I’ve wanted to do what my brother has done.”




Hidden behind Ryan’s desire to be better than his brother has always been a wish to be just like him.

Part of his confidence came from seeing Andrew rock out at Montverde. If Andrew could do it, Ryan figured he could, too.

Just before eighth grade, Ryan dropped soccer, track and everything else that took time away from basketball. He also took the year off from playing organized ball, opting to train with Claude every day to get ready for the next step. He knew, like Andrew, he wanted to try his hand at MVA.

“He’s my No. 1 influence,” Ryan said. “I feel like, in my life, I’ve wanted to do what my brother has done.”

Moments after playing a nearly perfect game to help Montverde win the Geico Nationals championship, Jalen Duren hoisted Ryan Nembhard above his head like the trophy they won. It was a crowning moment for Nembhard. Not just because of his 12 points that included going 3 for 3 from deep. Or his seven assists.

Everything had come full circle for Nembhard, who many doubted at the start of that season. A sentiment he faced from the moment he moved to Florida.

He stepped onto Montverde’s campus in 2018, frail as a feather and under 6-feet. All he had to his name was, well, his name. Andrew graduated from MVA months earlier, leaving his imprint as the point guard who helped secure a national championship.

The decision was simple for Ryan. He already got a glimpse of the program through his brother’s lens and grew comfortable with the staff. But his brother’s legacy meant little once Ryan showed up.

“Nothing has been given to (Ryan),” Claude said. “I would say the doors could open because of me and his brother probably, but he had to survive once he got in that door.”

Upon arrival, Ryan competed in the ordinary open gyms. He thought he did his thing, only to be shocked when he got his schedule. His mornings were to be spent practicing with the postgrad team, not varsity.

He was confused. He knew the team had plenty of high-major recruits. He was young. Small. Unranked.







Montverde

“Practice was honestly harder than the game,” Ryan Nembhard said of his time at Montverde Academy.


This wasn’t any public school that could expect some random transfer or two each year. Those walls housed NBA all-stars like Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons and D’Angelo Russell. Ryan signed up for high school basketball’s premier turnstile, the most prominent prep-to-pro machine there was.

He put his head down, going at the best players on the team every day. He knew his name was worth something. He worked his way to the varsity squad, receiving playing time as a sophomore.

Ryan was certain he made progress. As the calendar turned and his junior season approached, he thought his role would increase. He hoped to finally leap into the national spotlight.

Only to wind up on the team of all teams.

At point guard was senior Cade Cunningham. The alpha. The 6-6 point guard and leader commanded the Eagles’ locker room, becoming the top player in the country and eventual No. 1 overall pick in the NBA draft.

There was Scottie Barnes. The new kid on the block. A menacing, 6-7 forward and the NBA’s reigning rookie of the year. He was a top-five player in the country then, and more than anything, a wild card. His in-game theatrics were unpredictable, but his dominance made it easy for him to troll just about anybody.

Moses Moody was on the wing. Before winning a championship with the Golden State Warriors, he was giving prep teams the business. He was never quite the face of that squad, but as Ryan recalls, Moody probably took more shots than anyone.

Junior Caleb Houstan was a deadly 6-8 sniper who was later selected by the Orlando Magic with the 32nd pick in this year’s draft after spending a year at Michigan.

Five-star senior Dayron Sharpe manned the middle, trying to bring down the rim with every dunk before eventually being selected by the Brooklyn Nets with the 29th pick a year ago.

Off the bench came Dariq Whitehead, a budding MVA sophomore who displayed phenom qualities since he joined the team as an eighth-grader.

Four-stars Zeb Jackson and Langston Love followed.

Together they formed, in essence, a college team. The machine overflowed with so much talent that year that Ryan careened further down the rotation.

The team opened its regular season in Dallas in late November, playing a back-to-back against Duncanville and Houston Yates. Nembhard didn’t play at Duncanville until the Eagles were ahead by more than 30 in the final quarter. He didn’t touch the floor vs. Yates until the team held a 50-point lead.

The Eagles were pummeling teams. But from the folding chairs he had gotten acquainted with along the sideline, Ryan’s spirit was taking a similar beating. He called Claude that weekend.

“I said ‘Yo, I’m trying to come home,’” Ryan remembers telling his father. “’I do not want to be here anymore. I did not come back to sit on the bench again.’

“It’s tough. You got people back home rooting for you, who know how good you are. You put so much work in to play at that level and be successful. For it to not happen was tough.”

He could’ve been a team’s first option without ever leaving Ontario. At the very least, he could’ve been a focal point for an offense somewhere in America.

Between all the winning and the stars, people tend not to realize that even Montverde has role players.

“We preached how many guys jumped around and how many of those guys struggled,” Boyle said. “Would you be happy being the ninth man on an NBA team making $7 million a year? Sure you would. Well guess what? For you, that’s probably the best you’re gonna do. So it’s important that you know how to play that way.

“You’re the eighth best player on this team. Can you survive still? Can you give us something?”

Ryan chose to stick it out.







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Then the team grew so close it became hard for him to maintain any displeasure in his role. His best memories at Montverde came at the lunch tables. Cracking up, roasting each other, instigating and chasing each other around. Being kids.

The team’s practices that year evolved into anything but child’s play. At one point, after their few opening drills, Boyle just let them run. Ryan was butting heads with future pros on a daily basis.

“Practice was honestly harder than the game,” he said.

In plenty of games, Boyle was sitting the starters before the fourth quarter and Ryan’s minutes eventually grew.

He played as early as the first quarter in a March meeting with the Jonathan Kuminga-led The Patrick School — a top-five team in the nation and New Jersey’s best — which it beat 77-32.

Ryan bought into his role as the guy who made his teammates look good by making the right decisions. It became his mission to ensure the offense ran smoothly.

Montverde finished that year 25-0, named the default national champions after COVID-19 cut its season short.

Those who know Ryan know they’ve never had to question his confidence. But it was hard to imagine just how much his would swell even as a reserve during that time.

“He saw that he could really compete against all those guys,” Boyle said. “More than anything he started to develop his leadership ability in running the team.”

Boyle saw the player he thought could take the reins as Montverde’s offensive orchestrator the following year. Some staff members entered that season thinking that now-Indiana freshman Jalen Hood-Schifino, then one of the top junior guards in the nation, should be the starting point guard.

By the time the season started, no one questioned how valuable Ryan was. His understanding of Boyle’s direction and system. How much he developed the previous year. His lead guard DNA.

Even after Cunningham, Moody, Barnes and Sharpe graduated, Ryan’s job wasn’t to score. Whitehead, Houstan and Love stuck around. The turnstile produced talents like Duren and Hood-Schifino. It was time for Ryan to make his teammates look good at a level he hadn’t before.

Nine of the 10 players between the teams starting lineup in the Geico championship that April featured top-100 players. The one who wasn’t ranked was Ryan. But as the Eagles paraded on the floor following Ryan’s performance, Boyle knew then more than ever.

“He sacrificed a lot because his senior year team didn’t really have a natural passer besides him,” Boyle said. “But that’s Ryan. He does whatever it takes to win.”

The league wouldn’t wait for him. The Big East forced Ryan Nembhard to grow up quickly.

Because of injuries and the graduation of Marcus Zegarowski, Nembhard was entrusted to play big minutes and score at an unfamiliar rate. His 11.3 points per game helped keep the Jays afloat last season.

“I think he just did what a great point guard does,” CU assistant Alan Huss said. “Great point guards figure out when it’s time to call their own number, too.”

Opponents got physical and tried to push Nembhard around.

He spent weeks trying to adjust to it. It felt like he just started to see over the hump when a collision with St. John’s guard Posh Alexander proved costly. Before Nembhard could will himself upright, he knew. His wrist was broken.

His freshman year was over.







Broken wrist

Amid everything he had been asked to do, Nembhard challenged himself to be a leader. That only ballooned when he was restricted to street clothes after breaking his wrist.




He found himself on the bench again. Without control. Again. Without garbage time to work through. Just a seat with a good view of Creighton’s Big East and NCAA tournament runs.

Amid everything he had been asked to do, Nembhard challenged himself to be a leader. That only ballooned when he was restricted to street clothes.

Trey Alexander was never quite the true point guard his teammate was. Yet he rose to the occasion in Nembhard’s absence, something Huss thought Nembhard influenced.

It’s why Huss recruited him. The season called for him to score, but Huss knows Nembhard is a point guard at heart. An elevator for those around him.

Nembhard has been more of a lead by example type. Finding his voice is the next step.

It might not be his that commands this squad. Not yet. But the group he returns to will need several voices.

This Creighton team looks different than the one he cheered on with a cast. Alexander has made strides. Arthur Kaluma’s draft stock has soared. Baylor Scheierman adds another dimension to the roster — one that relieves Nembhard of the heavy burden he faced as a creator a year ago.

The program shifted around him. Where does that leave him?

Huss sees Nembhard back where he belongs.

“I think you’ll see his best basketball this year because I think he’s better when he’s with great players,” Huss said. “The true point guards, I genuinely believe, those guys are born. It’s a deal they have to feel. Ryan has that.”

His tasks won’t be so predictable this season.

Some games might call for heroics. Others might call for him to play puppeteer, controlling the offense from the background.

Amid uncertainty, Nembhard can expel worries. He’s seen a few things.

“There’s enough ball to go around,” Nembhard said. “As long as you win, I think that’s the biggest thing. Winning is what’s gonna make people talk about you.”







Celebrate

“There’s enough ball to go around,” Ryan Nembhard said. “As long as you win, I think that’s the biggest thing. Winning is what’s gonna make people talk about you.”