The first thing people seem to notice about Saint Joseph’s forward DeAndre’ Bembry is his hairstyle, a poofy Afro reminiscent of the ‘do favored by Julius (Dr. J) Erving in his ABA heyday, some 40 years ago.
Bembry has worn his hair that way since his sophomore year of high school. He and his teammates agreed to grow it out, and even after everybody else had their locks shorn he kept his long, the exception being a subsequent summer when he made his way to the barbershop.
But he struggled in his next AAU game — “I couldn’t even make a layup,” he said — so he has kept his hair long ever since, save a touch-up here and there.
The other thing about him that stands out to others (especially NBA scouts) is his head for the game — how he knows all, sees all and does all, a half-step before everyone else on the court.
“It’s what he’s going to take to the next level — his basketball understanding,” Hawks coach Phil Martelli said. “There are guys that shoot better. There are guys that jump better. There are guys that run faster. There are guys that are flashier.”
But few players, Martelli said, can decipher the action on the fly quite as well, and make the correct play as a result.
To review, then — great head of hair, better head on his shoulders.
It has resulted in a season that finds Bembry, a 6-6 junior, averaging 16.9 points, 7.8 rebounds, 4.5 assists and 1.4 steals for SJU (27-7), which defeated VCU 87-74 victory in Sunday’s Atlantic 10 championship game. Bembry led the way with 30 points.
Bembry is second on the team in scoring and rebounding to senior forward Isaiah Miles (18.2 ppg and 8.0 rpg) while leading the Hawks in assists and steals. He ranks among the Atlantic 10’s top 11 in all four categories.
And never mind that his shooting percentages — especially from the 3-point line (.263) and the foul line (.644 — leave something to be desired. Martelli places him on the short list of great players he has had in his 21 years at St. Joe’s, a list that begins with longtime NBA guard Jameer Nelson and includes Delonte West, who also played professionally.
It seems likely Bembry will have an opportunity to play on the next level as well. He appeared at the Nike Basketball Academy in Santa Monica, Calif., last June, an invitation-only showcase for some of the nation’s top college players. Providence’s Kris Dunn, Oklahoma’s Buddy Hield and LSU’s Ben Simmons were among the others who took part.
“I feel like I was the best player there, and a few people felt the same way,” Bembry said. “It definitely was a good experience.”
Then again, he added, “I could be on the court with anybody and I’d feel like I should be good.”
So no, he doesn’t lack for confidence, either. But it’s his feel and anticipation that set him apart. And Martelli learned while recruiting Bembry he has always possessed both qualities, while growing up in Charlotte and playing his last three years of high school ball at The Patrick School in New Jersey.
“He could always run and jump, but if you watched him play with other good players, he was the guy that made it go,” Martelli said. “He plays for only one reason – that his team would win.”
That hasn’t changed.
“I always like just making the right play,” Bembry said. “I don’t really care too much about scoring. I can score zero points, but I’ll be happy if I have like 12 assists and 15 rebounds and we won.”
The Hawks have had an interesting year, winning six of seven games decided by six points or fewer. Bembry hit a step-back jumper from the right wing to snap a 73-all tie with 26.9 seconds left in a 77-73 victory over Richmond on Jan. 2, and in a 72-67 escape against Rhode Island eight days later keyed a late run by twice passing out of low-post double-teams to teammate Aaron Brown, who buried 3-pointers.
“I mean, it’s a simple play,” Bembry said.
Simple, at least, for someone who has his generously coiffed head in the game. And with Bembry, that always seems to be the case.