All Eyes on DeAndre Bembry as Saint Joseph’s Looks to Surprise

Posted by Ray Curren on December 1st, 2015

As you’d expect late in a tie game, veteran Saint Joseph’s coach Phil Martelli drew up a play that heavily involved his best player. After all, junior DeAndre Bembry — whom Florida coach Mike White had just called the day before “their pro” — was the Atlantic 10’s top scorer last season, while also leading the Hawks in rebounds, assists, and steals. But after inbounding the ball, Bembry never came close to touching it, as Martelli’s carefully designed play descended into chaos. The end result, however, made Bembry one of the happiest people in Mohegan Sun Arena, as sophomore teammate Shavar Newkirk found a way to hit an awkward 15-footer with one second remaining to give Saint Joseph’s a 66-64 victory over Old Dominion a week ago Sunday. The win moved the Hawks to 4-1 on the young season, setting up an intriguing matchup with local rival and national power Villanova tonight.

Arguably the Atlantic 10's premier player, Bremby has the Hawks off to a solid start. (Photo by Mike Lawrie/Getty Images)

Arguably the Atlantic 10’s premier player, Bembry, with the help of teammates, have the Hawks off to a solid start. (Photo by Mike Lawrie/Getty Images)

“We’re winning, so as long as we’re winning, everything is positive,” Bembry said after the win. “I haven’t played my best the last few games, but I’m trying to figure out ways to push through it and help the team win. If I have to play horrible all year and we win, so be it. That’s the thing about last year, we didn’t win. So any way we can win, I’ll take it.” Indeed, Bembry had a heck of an individual season in 2014-15, as the All-Atlantic 10 first teamer was the first ever Saint Joseph’s player to win the conference scoring title. Along the way, his athleticism and well-rounded game left opposing coaches in awe and NBA scouts curious, often conjuring up next-level buzzwords like “versatile” and “wingspan.” (“He’s a lot quicker and athletic than he looked on tape,” White added last Saturday, even after Bembry managed just 10 points on 2-of-11 shooting in a loss to Florida.)

But for all his accolades and ability, Bembry remains somewhat of an enigma and he knows exactly why. Despite what the junior accomplished last season, Saint Joseph’s was not a very good basketball team. The Hawks finished 13-18 overall, 7-11 in the Atlantic 10, and were bounced in their A-10 Tournament opener in Brooklyn. That final loss, a lifeless 60-49 defeat in which Bembry shot just 3-of-14 from the field and the Hawks managed a woeful 0.74 points per possession, was emblematic of a lost season on Hawk Hill.

In some ways, it was worse than the record even indicated. The Hawks began the season with a home loss to lowly Farleigh Dickinson and a week later found itself trailing Gonzaga 46-10 at the half on the way to a 94-42 beatdown. Saint Joe’s finished just 1-3 in Big Five play, with one of the losses coming to Ivy cellar-dweller Penn, which fired head coach Jerome Allen at the end of the campaign. We could keep going, but you get the point. Bembry had been a major contributor as a freshman in the Hawks’ somewhat magical 2013-14 season, a 24-10 year highlighted by an Atlantic 10 Tournament title. Saint Joe’s also had UConn dead to rights late in its Round of 64 NCAA Tournament contest, only to fall to the eventual national champion in overtime.

The Atlantic 10 might be the toughest non-Power Five conference in the country, but Phil Martelli has his squad right in the thick of things. (USA TODAY Sports)

The Atlantic 10 might be the toughest non-Power Five conference in the country, but Phil Martelli has his squad right in the thick of things. (USA TODAY Sports)

That team had one of the best shooters in the country in Langston Galloway, and fellow seniors Halil Kanacevic and Ronald Roberts also helped carry the offensive load. Bembry averaged 12.1 points per game and shot 45.8 percent from the field on a team that finished 57th nationally in offensive efficiency and 24th in eFG% (53.9%). Last season, however, the team struggled to find reliable scoring options to replace those departed seniors. Harassed and feeling the pressure, Bembry took nearly 200 more shots than any of his teammates, making just 43.2 percent of them (and didn’t help himself by shooting just 63.8 percent at the free throw line). Alas, outside of Javon Baumann (who shot 64.9 percent from the field but only took 74 shots all season), no Hawk shot better than Bembry, who also finished last season third nationally in minutes played per game.

Although there were days when Saint Joseph’s was able to put it all together, most notably in wins over Atlantic-10 regular season champion Davidson and defensive stalwart Rhode Island, the final numbers didn’t lie. The Hawks finished 257th nationally in offensive efficiency and a woeful 313th in eFG% at 45.3 percent. They were even worse in three-point marksmanship (29.9%, 328th) and free throw shooting (61.5%, 347th). The mission was clear, even as Bembry spent most of the summer impressing coaches and scouts while competing against the best players in the country on the camp circuit. In the preseason he was ranked as the 22nd best player in the nation by CBS, 28th by NBC, and… 92nd by ESPN. Many players may not have noticed, but Bembry — for better or worse — is an avid reader of all things DeAndre Bembry. And he has the bar for himself set extremely high.

“Growing up, I was always underrated, so I always had a chip on my shoulder,” Bembry said. “That’s how I was raised, so even though now I’m getting more praise for my game, I want to be No. 1, and I know I’m nowhere near that right now, so I’m going to keep working to get better. I’m never where I want to be.” Alas, hard work is not always the complete answer. Bembry has started off this season mired in a shooting slump, especially in the area of the floor where the Hawks need him most: outside the three-point arc. He was 0-of-9 from deep on the season heading into that Old Dominion contest, and he badly missed his first attempt against the Monarchs.

It had already been a tough afternoon for Bembry, as he came off the bench for the first time in his career because of his tardiness to a film session. When he finally entered the game, the sparse neutral site crowd didn’t seem to help his energy. Soon, though, a revitalized Bembry arrived on the scene, chasing a Monarchs player down from behind and blocking his shot. Then there was a steal. He started grabbing rebounds outside his area with authority. Midway through the second half, Bembry set himself with the ball from 25 feet away and finally drilled a three-pointer. It failed to elicit a celebration, however, as he instead delivered a relieved shake of the head. He finished the victory with a modest stat line by his lofty standards: 15 points, 10 rebounds, four blocks, three assists.

“I’ve been working on my jumper all summer and then I come out and don’t hit a shot,” Bembry said. ‘It’s frustrating, but I have to keep trying to calm myself down. I ask my assistant coaches, ‘What am I doing wrong?’ And they say just calm down, and I just have to talk to myself and stay calm. It’s always repetition, but a lot of it is mental, too. I’m a very high mental guy, so if I’m not right in my head I won’t be right on the court. I basically did the same thing last year [struggling to shoot], but it’s going a little deeper into the season. I’m not really worried about my game, though, I’ll be alright.”

The Hawk might have plenty to flap his wings about this season. (Getty)

The Hawk might have plenty to flap his wings about this season. (Getty)

For now, his teammates are stepping up, particularly senior Isaiah Miles, who is outpacing Bembry in scoring (17.0 PPG to Bembry’s 14.0 PPG), rebounding and blocked shots. While the team’s shooting numbers still need work, they are slightly improved (48.4 eFG%, although just 23.7% on threes), Senior Aaron Brown, sophomore James Demery and surprising freshman Pierfrancesco Oliva have all contributed in spells. Martelli, at least publicly, isn’t worried about his star’s shooting. “We need the very best DeAndre that we can have, and we need the very best Aaron Brown,” the head coach said. “We need the best everybody. The number with DeAndre is the turnovers [he had four in each of his last two games]. He can’t have that many turnovers; he’s too gifted with the ball. The shooting will come, but we need everything from everyone, not just DeAndre.”

Martelli told the Philadelphia Inquirer before the season, “We weren’t a team that could warrant having an All-American by our record. That’s on me.” Will the Hawks end up significantly improved this season? Many are still skeptical — Saint Joseph’s was picked just seventh in the Atlantic-10 preseason poll (although Bembry was an obvious first-team selection). Next up is that meeting with eighth-ranked Villanova (which is top-ranked in Ken Pomeroy’s ratings), and in addition to another Big Five game with Temple, pesky Ivy League competition in Columbia and Princeton must be dealt with before Atlantic-10 play begins. Will Bembry and his teammates be able to shoot the ball consistently enough to merit a return to March’s biggest stage?

Bembry (and likely Martelli) knows this season might end up being his last shot. Opinions about the junior’s draft stock run the gamut, with mock NBA Drafts projecting him anywhere from the late first round to nowhere at all. But as his stock rises, so do the pressures of taking the professional money when he can get it. For now, though, Bembry and his trademark Afro have a singular mission: winning college basketball games. And if his numbers have to suffer a little bit to do so, that’s a price Bembry will gladly pay, especially after what his team had to endure last season. “It’s going to depend on the game how much I have to shoot, this is more of a new team,” he said. “A lot of guys last year was their first year, and the first year guys we have this season are confident. We’re just trying to find ways to win games. That’s the only number I care about.”

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