Mamba Mentality: Nembhard looks to take game, TCU to new heights as he mimics late idol

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TCU guard R.J. Nembhard has taken his game to new heights in his sophomore year, and he’s not done yet. Photo by Cristian ArguetaSoto.

Eight seconds left to play. Francisco Farabello in-bounds the ball to R.J. Nembhard with the Frogs down three points to Iowa State in their Big 12 opener.

Nembhard quickly moves the length of the floor, taking a screen from guard Jaire Grayer. With just over four seconds left, the sophomore pulls up and lets it fly from around 35 feet out, banking the shot in and sending the game to overtime.

The guard had scored the last nine points in regulation for TCU, and he would drop four more in overtime to lead the Frogs to a come-from-behind 81-79 victory.

Nembhard finished with a career-high 31 points that day in a game that would fully establish him as one of the top guards in the Big 12.

Facing adversity and putting a team on his back was nothing new to the rising star. Nembhard’s idol as a child was the late Kobe Bryant, who was known for his willingness to do whatever it took to win a game.

“I’ve always had that mindset,” Nembhard said about putting his team on his back. “Especially with my idol, Kobe, R.I.P, I’ve always looked up to him; and he really had that mindset too.”

Nembhard got a chance to prove himself well before his days at TCU. He had big shoes to fill, as his father, Ruben, had spent time playing professionally in the NBA and overseas after being a standout at Weber State.

Despite his love for football at an early age, Nembhard started playing basketball when he was 10 years old and quickly ditched the field for the hardwood. Colleges started to notice Nembhard when he was a sophomore at Keller High School, despite his school’s lack of basketball reputation.

Nembhard committed to play for TCU in June 2016 as head coach Jamie Dixon honored the scholarship offer that had previously been offered by former head coach Trent Johnson.

“They pursued me very hard,” Nembhard said. “It was close to home. It’s a great atmosphere. The coaching staff is doing a good job with their players. I was trying to do something different—put TCU on the map for basketball. That’s still in process.”

Nembhard would put Keller on the map a few months later, as he led them to their first-ever state tournament appearance after averaging 31 points in their previous three playoff games. His dominant play earned him the District 3-6A MVP Award and a ranking as high as 10th in the state of Texas at one point.

Though he was ready to make an impact right away, limited playing time forced Nembhard to redshirt his freshman season with seniors Vladimir Brodziansky and Kenrich Williams leading TCU to their first NCAA tournament appearance since 1998.

TCU guard RJ Nembhard drives to the hoop against Kansas guard Lagerald Vick on Jan. 9, 2019. Photo by Cristian ArguetaSoto.

A year later, the young guard would get a chance to pick up where Brodziansky and Williams left off. During his redshirt freshman campaign, Nembhard showed flashes of the pure scorer he had been at Keller, scoring in double figures seven times.

Nembhard struggled with consistency during the 2018-19 season, though. He finished the year averaging just 4.4 points per game after scoring two or fewer points in 20 out of 37 games.

“It’s hard, whether you redshirt or you play right away,” Nembhard said. “Your first year of actually playing is difficult. Even though I redshirted and was here for a year, it was like I hadn’t been here.”

After the Frogs narrowly missed the NCAA tournament and saw their roster dwindled by graduating seniors and the transfer portal, Nembhard worked harder than ever over the off-season.

Along with working on his shooting and ballhandling, Nembhard focused on his conditioning in preparation for the 2019-20 season.

“Last year, I played 17 minutes, and I’m jumping to playing 32 minutes now,” Nembhard said, emphasizing his need to be in shape.

The offseason work he had put in showed itself just a few games into Nembhard’s sophomore year.

In TCU’s first four games, Nembhard averaged 16.3 points per game and hit a game-winning three-pointer to lift the Frogs over UC Irvine.

“I love the pressure. I love taking on that role,” Nemhard said. “Even if I don’t make the shot or if I turn the ball over, the next 100 times, I’m going to want to be in that position.”

As the season went on, Nembhard showed TCU fans that his improved game included a little bit of everything, hitting clutch shots, wracking up assists and becoming a consistent threat from behind-the-arc.

While Iowa State stands out as Nembhard’s best game from deep with six made threes, he has hit multiple three-pointers in five conference games since then.

After TCU knocked off No. 17 West Virginia on Feb. 22, Nembhard was averaging 12.15 points and 3.5 assists per game, good for 16th and 10th in the Big 12, respectively.

Looking like he was headed for his first All-Big 12 honors, Nembhard suffered a groin injury against the Mountaineers that kept him from playing against Iowa State three days later. TCU lost by just six points.

“It’s difficult. I’ve dealt with this all season,” Nembhard said about sitting out. “I’ve been playing through pain all year and didn’t really think much of it.”

Nembhard is listed as doubtful for TCU’s match-up with No. 2 Baylor this Saturday. Like Kobe, the Frogs’ guard wants to play through the pain, but he knows the importance of dealing with the injury now.

Despite the setback, Nembhard knows that TCU is not down for the count this season.

“The season’s not over, and I think we all know that,” Nembhard said. “But I think everyone has to believe it, including our fans and the young guys on the team.”

Like he did at Keller, Nembhard wants to use his remaining time to continue to put TCU in the national spotlight. The sophomore listed things like winning the Big 12 and reaching the Sweet 16 as goals he had for the Frogs.

Nembhard surveys the floor as TCU takes on West Virginia on Feb. 22, 2020. Photo by Cristian ArguetaSoto.

Nembhard also wants to grow in his skills on and off the court as he prepares for the NBA and becomes more of the primary guy at TCU with guard Desmond Bane graduating in May.

“Definitely consistency. That’s huge,” Nembhard said about improvements for the pros. “If you wanna be an NBA-level guy, you gotta be consistent. Des [Bane] is probably one of the most consistent players I’ve seen across the board.”

Whether he plays again for TCU this year or not, the future is certainly bright for R.J. Nembhard. The guy who once put a high school 18 miles down the road from TCU on the map wants to do the same for the purple and white; and like his idol, Kobe, he’ll work as hard as he needs to do just that.

TCU takes on the Bears at 1 p.m. on Saturday in Schollmaier Arena.