SAN FRANCISCO -- Indiana Pacers coach Rick Carlisle looked sternly at the stat sheet to begin his postgame conference, just moments before he would unleash an avalanche of praise toward his dynamic rookie guard. No, not Bennedict Mathurin -- the No. 6 overall pick in the 2022 draft who leads the NBA in bench scoring.
The other rookie guard.
After an improbable road win over the Golden State Warriors in early December without their two best players, the conversation was solely focused on Andrew Nembhard, whom Carlisle promptly dubbed a "top 10" talent in his draft class despite being a second-round pick.
Nembhard was the best player on a court he shared with Steph Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green, putting up 31 points and 13 assists against in a 112-104 win. At one point late in the fourth quarter, Nembhard left Curry no recourse but to shake his head in disbelief after a demoralizing step-back 3-pointer all but sealed the game.
Andrew Nembhard is going off on the Warriors and Steph can't believe it pic.twitter.com/202POmi0AM— Bleacher Report (@BleacherReport) December 6, 2022
It seems fitting that Nemhard ended up with 31 and 13, because the numbers "3" and "1" have been crucial to the early success for a Pacers team many felt would sell off their remaining veteran parts and willingly nosedive into the Victor Wembanyama-Scoot Henderson sweepstakes. Instead they're sitting above .500 nearly 30 games into the season, and their lead guards are a huge reason why.
In Nembhard's explosion against the Warriors, he compiled 13 assists compared to four turnovers, just slightly over a 3:1 ratio, which is the gold standard for ball control -- a benchmark similar to shooting 50 percent from the field or 40 percent from the 3-point line. Throughout his rookie season, Nembhard has been around a 3-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio, an excellent mark for any guard, let alone a first-year player who quickly earned himself a spot in the starting lineup.
"It's always been my thing. I've always had a pretty good assist-to-turnover ratio. I've been kind of known as that type of guy," said Nembhard, whose assist-to-turnover ratio was a hair under 3-to-1 as a senior at Gonzaga. "I've had to understand when to be aggressive and understand when to just be solid and make a solid play for us."
As great as Nembhard has been, however, he's been overshadowed by the remarkable ball control of breakout third-year guard Tyrese Haliburton, who leads the league in assists and made headlines in late November by dishing out 40 assists over three games without committing a single turnover. No player had accomplished the feat since the league began recording turnovers in 1977. Not to mention, Haliburton also leads the Pacers in scoring.
Overall, Haliburton's assist-to-turnover ratio was better than 4-to-1 entering Wednesday's rematch with the Warriors, on par historically with ball security gods like Chris Paul, John Stockton and Steve Nash.
"Taking care of the ball is something that's got to matter to a player. It's got to be important to them," Carlisle said of Haliburton. "This is one of the things that makes him a savant-like guy at that position. Efficiency, with all the touches and all that kind of stuff is not easy. But he takes pride in it. He knows it's important to winning and, like I said, it matters to him."
Making Haliburton's accomplishments all the more impressive is the fact that the Pacers have played at basically the fastest pace in the league this season, over 102 possessions per game. Being able to make those kinds of quick decisions without turning the ball over is essential to the Pacers offense, and equally difficult with the length and versatility of modern NBA defenders.
Steve Kerr's Warriors have been at the forefront of pace-pushing over the past several years, and he understands that turnovers can be the cost of doing business when you encourage that style. So, what Haliburton is doing has certainly caught Kerr's eye.
"He's a really smart player. He pushes the ball, but he makes, generally, a lot of simple plays," Kerr said of Haliburton. "I saw recently where [Haliburton] had a three-game stretch with 40 assists and no turnovers. I've never even seen anyone come close to that. So, pretty remarkable ball control and for a guy who has the ball in his hands playing at that pace."
Haliburton has a handful of highlight-reel passes and plays with a contagious, enthusiastic flair, but Kerr is right about making the simple play. While floor generals like Trae Young and Luka Doncic collect their assists by dribbling and waiting for plays to develop, Haliburton is quick to find the open man, even if they're not necessarily immediately in position to score.
According to NBA.com, Haliburton averages just over four dribbles per touch, compared to nearly six per touch for Doncic and Young. In fact, out of the top five guard assist leaders in the league, Haliburton dribbles and holds the ball by far the least. Nikola Jokic is third in the league in assists, but as a center he operates more from the post and in dribble hand-offs, so his figures for touches and dribbles are much lower. When it comes to high-assist guards, however, Haliburton's numbers jump off the page.
|Guard assist leaders||Assists||Dribbles per touch||Seconds per touch|
Making the simple play is sometimes easier thanks to Indiana's pair of 3-point shooting big men in Myles Turner and Jalen Smith. Each is adept in the pick-and-pop, and while Haliburton's passes to them aren't generally the highest degree of difficulty, the timing and precision have to be perfect, like on this bounce pass to Smith for a 3-pointer against the Kings.
Smith and the other Pacers have benefited from the presence of not only Haliburton and Nembhard, but also of veteran backup TJ McConnell, who has an assist-to-turnover ratio of 3.4-to-1 since joining Indiana prior to the 2019-20 season.
"It's amazing, I mean, they get a lot of open looks for everybody," Smith told CBS Sports. "They draw attention, and they see a lot of things that most people don't see, and just finding us when we're open. They control the offense, so it's good playing with them."
Haliburton, Nembhard and McConnell have racked up 493 combined assists this season, compared to 151 turnovers -- an impressive ratio of 3.3-to-1. The rest of the team hasn't been quite so careful, with six key rotation players having close to as many turnovers as assists -- or worse. That only places more emphasis on the guard trio entrusted to protect the basketball like a priceless Fabergé egg.
"We're blessed. We've got three high-efficiency point guards with Halliburton, McConnell and Nembhard," Carlisle said. "That position is your nerve center for decision-making on the floor. So all these guys have got a really good feel for the game and really good feel for their teammates that they're working with. And they're great people, so it's a really fun group to work with."
The pride that the Pacers guards take in limiting turnovers has yielded strong results as they sit in play-in position approaching Christmas -- a shock to many who had them pegged for the bottom of the Eastern Conference entering the season.
"One hundred percent, we definitely all heard those kind of notions of us being the worst team, one of the worst teams in the league," Nembhard said. "I think we've got a lot of competitors and we weren't really too focused on headlines and stuff. We want to work on ourselves and keep getting better day by day, week by week. We've had a good little burst to start the season, but it's early. We want to continue to get better."