Atlanta Hawks small forward DeAndre Bembry is arguably one of the most NBA-ready players from this year’s draft class.
Not only is the 22-year-old more experienced than many of his fellow rookies, he’s also mature beyond his years and has the kind of basketball IQ rarely seen in a first-year player. Because of his versatility and ability to produce on both ends of the court, it’s possible that he could crack Mike Budenholzer’s rotation sooner than later in Atlanta.
Bembry was the No. 21 overall pick in the draft, and he likely would’ve gone higher had he been a bit younger. During the draft process, teams often fall in love with a player’s potential rather than their college production, which tends to hurt older prospects like Bembry. But after doing very well in pre-draft workouts and impressing NBA decision-makers in face-to-face meetings, Bembry solidified himself as a mid-first-round pick and is now determined to make every team that passed on him pay.
He seems to have found a perfect situation in Atlanta since the team is in win-now mode. After adding Dwight Howard in free agency, the Hawks are hoping to contend in the Eastern Conference, which is relatively wide open after the defending champion Cleveland Cavaliers. Budenholzer and his staff want contributors, not projects, so it’s no coincidence that both of the team’s first-round selections (Taurean Prince and Bembry) are 22-year-olds who are ready to play now rather than needing years of development before making their mark.
Bembry may have flown under the radar a bit while at Saint Joseph’s, but there’s no question that he was one of the most productive players in the nation. As a sophomore, he led the Hawks in scoring (17.7), rebounds (7.7), assists (3.6) and steals (1.9). Last year, as a junior, he averaged 17.4 points, 7.8 rebounds, 4.5 assists, 1.4 steals and .8 blocks while shooting 47.9 percent from the field. Bembry finished the campaign with an offensive rating of 113.1 and a defensive rating of 97.7. He played the third-most minutes of any player in the nation (1,341), showing just how important he was to the Hawks.
He was named the 2016 Atlantic 10 Men’s Basketball Player of the Year for his efforts, while also earning a spot on the All-Atlantic 10 First-Team (for the second straight year) and the conference’s All-Defensive Team.
Perhaps the best example of Bembry making his presence felt all over the court when his team needed it most was this past NCAA Tournament. In Saint Joseph’s first-round win over Cincinnati, Bembry filled the stat sheet to the tune of 23 points, six rebounds, five assists, three steals and two blocks (while shooting 57.2 percent from the field and 60 percent from three-point range). In the Round of 32 against Oregon, Bembry had 16 points, 12 rebounds, three assists and two steals. Unfortunately for the Hawks, Bembry received little help and Oregon managed to win the close game by seven points.
Now, Bembry is hoping to use his well-rounded game to continue filling the stat sheet at the pro level. The Hawks won 48 games last season (fourth-best in the East) and are looking to make a deep postseason run after advancing to the Eastern Conference Finals two years ago. Atlanta has made the playoffs in nine straight seasons and all signs point to that streak continuing.
Basketball Insiders caught up with Bembry to discuss his transition to the NBA, what he has seen from his Hawks teammates in offseason workouts, his lofty Rookie of the Year goal, how he plans to honor his late brother, Adrian, and much more.
Alex Kennedy: You’ve been described as one of the most NBA-ready players in this draft class. Do you think you can make an impact right away in Atlanta and what can you provide the Hawks this season?
DeAndre Bembry: “I definitely feel like I can impact the game right away. I feel like it just depends on what the coaches need me to do in my rookie year. Whether it’s me needing to score or if it’s just needing me out there to guard the best player on the floor, I’m open to it. I’m a very versatile player; I can play with the ball in my hands and can play off the ball if that’s what Coach Bud wants. I can pretty much guard the one, two and three, so I can affect the game in many different areas. It just depends what the team needs me to do or what my coaches want me to do.”
Kennedy: You mentioned being able to play three positions and defend three different positions. You ranked 17th in the nation in Defensive Win Shares last season. How much does your versatility help you and, in today’s NBA where we see position-less basketball more and more, how important is that?
Bembry: “Rather than just being a one-dimensional player, Coach can throw me out there to do multiple things. Rather than just being a defensive player or just being able to throw up shots, I can always find a way to make an impact since I play hard on both ends. The NBA is definitely moving toward more versatile players. These days, the four will bring the ball up the court sometimes, like Draymond Green does. Even the fives are trying to dribble more than they used to. Being versatile can definitely help a player get more minutes, and I feel like that will help me get out there more.”
Kennedy: I love this fit in Atlanta for you. You’re unselfish, you defend, you like to facilitate for your teammates and you’re mature. A lot of times during the draft process, people focus on what number you get selected, but the specific situation and fit is probably more important. How great of a fit is this for you?
Bembry: “It’s a great fit. Being a team player is one of the things Coach Bud is really high on. Also, being able to share the ball, making the right play at the right time and being able to read and react much faster than others. It’s definitely a good fit for me because those are some of the things that I do very well. When I played in the Summer League, there wasn’t one play we drew up; it was just all read and react and that’s one thing I’m pretty much use to doing, making the right play at the right time and finding open teammates.”
Kennedy: What kind of interactions have you had with your teammates so far? Have you been working out with guys and getting the chance to pick their brains yet?
Bembry: “Yeah, definitely. I’ve been on the court with them and working out with them a lot. I’ve been working out with Dwight [Howard] a lot. [Paul] Millsap has been around. [Thabo] Sefolosha has been around. Pretty much everyone who’s been here for the summer, we’ve all been working out and just getting used to each other. The same goes for the coaches as well; I’ve just been trying to learn things from the coaches because they’ve been around the NBA for years. I’m just trying to soak in everything.”
Kennedy: The addition of Dwight Howard was huge for you guys. His move home made headlines and now people are curious to see how he’ll produce. What have you seen from Dwight in your workouts and, at this point in his career, what kind of impact can he have on both ends of the floor?
Bembry: “He can still obviously dominate the game if, mentally, he gets his mind right and if, physically, he’s healthy. From what I’ve been seeing though, Dwight has been killing it. He’s been shooting a lot of mid-range shots and they’re going in. He’s making them more consistently. I mean, everyone knows what Dwight can do though; we just need him when the season starts. He has to just block everything out and just do what he normally does. I feel like this year will definitely be a year where he does great things. He could be the top guy here, and I feel like that’s something he needed. He’s been trying to lead the team, and just doing little small things talking to me and Taurean [Prince], the two rookies. Even if it’s the older guys, he’ll talk to them as well. He’s definitely trying and we’re really looking forward to see what he’ll do for us.”
Kennedy: You and Taurean Prince have quite a bit in common in addition to being the two incoming rookies. You’re both 22 years old who are versatile swingmen who can make an impact on both ends of the court. How have you guys gotten along so far?
Bembry: “Well, Taurean and I have a similar background as far as how we got here. We were both underrated – not in the top 100. I met him at the Nike Skills Academy last summer and after that, we always had this respect for each other because whenever we went out there, we were just dogs and played hard against each other. Then, entering the NBA draft, we always matched up with each other somehow [in pre-draft workouts]. We were just going against each other a lot and just respecting each other’s game, so I feel like we got a feel for each other. He was cool off the court as well, so we developed somewhat of a bond. It was just funny how we ended up getting drafted together and ended up staying in the same condo and stuff like that. So yeah, Taurean and I are very close. We’re too close (laughs).”
Kennedy: That’s awesome. When you have another rookie who is there with you every step of the way and can relate to what you’re going through, how much easier does that make this transition?
Bembry: “I mean, it definitely helps to have somebody out there that you’re cool with, can talk about whatever with and things like that. I feel like we’re both mentally prepared, and we’re both mentally strong enough to come into the league prepared to dominate and go at whomever. That’s one of the things I like about Taurean; he has the same type of attitude that I have coming into the game. Right now, of course, he’s the one guarding me so we’re going hard at each other, like we’re enemies. (laughs) But that’s how I play and that’s how I like my teammates to play. We’ve looked really good playing against each other and alongside each other this summer. I can’t wait to see how we play against players from other teams.”
Kennedy: You had a very interesting journey to the NBA. In high school, you had a ton of doubters and you flew under the radar. One prominent scouting service had you ranked No. 224 in your class and Rivals didn’t even give you a single star, if I recall. How did that motivate you and how nice is it now to silence some of those detractors with your success?
Bembry: “The way I’ve always thought about it is I know what’s right and what’s wrong about my game. Even when I was in high school, I would just go out there and play basketball; that’s how simple it is for me. You could say whatever you want about me, but I’m going to go out there and play hard every possession because that’s something I know how to do. I’m going to go out there and play defense. I’m going to play my game. That’s just how I do it. That’s how I’ve always done it and that’s how I got here. Each game, I would just go out there, play hard and that’s pretty much what would shut everyone up. I always loved the game, so getting motivated wasn’t hard for me. But I did use it and let it motivate me even more.
“I’ve never been someone who hypes myself up, and maybe that [affected me] in the draft. I still feel like I should have gone higher, but that’s just another chance for me to show people what I can do. I want to show people why I really should have gone higher in the draft. But I’m just excited to be in the NBA. I’m looking forward to getting out there and playing against these guys.”
Kennedy: What are some of your individual goals for this upcoming season?
Bembry: “Well, I always set my standards very high. This year, I’m obviously going to say win Rookie of the Year, but other than that [my goal is] just to get as many minutes as I can as a rookie. I know Coach Bud doesn’t really play younger guys a lot, but I feel like me and Taurean are two very different younger guys coming into the NBA. I’m just trying to go out there and play my game, but I’ll definitely try to win Rookie of the Year.”
Kennedy: Who are some NBA players who you’ve studied and who have influenced your game a bit?
Bembry: “There are a lot of people. I try to pick little pieces from different players when I notice something that looked good or worked well. Take someone like Dirk Nowitzki, for example. I’m always learning how to do the little fade-away jump shot. I do a lot of Eurosteps, so I look at Manu Ginobili and James Harden. I look at Tracy McGrady a lot. It’s just taking little things from different players. I’ll look at Magic Johnson running the point as a 6’8 guard. If you’re a good basketball player and something that you’re doing is working, then I’ll definitely try to pick it apart and learn from it.”
Kennedy: Are there any defensive-minded guys you watched, maybe because of their motor or their ability to lock guys down?
Bembry: “I like people who are mentally and physically in tune to the game, so I’ll start with like a Dennis Rodman type of player. That’s how I try to come into every game. Like Rodman, I won’t let anybody just keep scoring on me. In today’s game, I’d say someone like a Jimmy Butler or Tony Allen – guys who can actually defend and do a good job at it.”
Kennedy: We talked about your individual goals, so now let’s talk about team goals. After the Cleveland Cavaliers, the East is pretty much wide open. How good can the Hawks be this season?
Bembry: “I feel like if everybody brings their ‘A’ game, we should be good. The bond is there; I know a bond when I see them. I’ve been on a lot of teams, especially in high school, where we started with a strong bond and went on to win championships. That’s what I’ve been a part of, and it all starts off with the bond. Our bond [in Atlanta] is already good. Then, you always need to have superstars. Dwight Howard is our superstar, Paul Millsap is our All-Star. As long as our top guys always bring their ‘A’ game and we just do what we’re supposed to do, then we will be pretty good this year. Like you said, nobody else in the East is as dominant as the Cavs, so it would definitely be fun to play in the playoffs my rookie year.”
Kennedy: You are going to wear No. 95 to honor your younger brother, Adrian, who was shot and killed two weeks before the 2016 NBA Draft while trying to break up a fight in Charlotte. You’re doing this because Adrian was born in 1995. I know you also want to use your platform as an NBA player to speak out against gun violence and hold events in a number of large cities. I’m so sorry for your loss. You and your family are in my thoughts and prayers. For those who don’t know, can you explain what you’re planning to do to honor Adrian?
Bembry: “I’m wearing No. 95 for him. Also, we’re going to do events about [preventing gun violence] in a number of cities. We’re still doing all of the paperwork, and I’m trying to find different foundations to get involved with. I’ve just been talking with my mother about what we want to do and talking to my lawyers as we try to get all the paperwork done. In addition to here in Atlanta, I want to do something in Philly, New Jersey and Charlotte because those are all areas where I actually lived in and got to see a lot of different things. I’m just trying to get that all finalized and I’ve been talking to the National Basketball Players Association about it as well. I think I’m going to try to get it going after my first season so that people know who I am a bit more and know my story. I think that’s better rather than me just trying to do it now and nobody understands what’s going on.”
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