When DeAndre’ Bembry’s mother, Essence, moved her family from North Carolina to New Jersey before his junior year of high school, the burgeoning high-school basketball standout packed his self-assured on-court demeanor for the 600-mile trip. Five years later he can still recall trash-talking eventual No. 1 overall pick Kyrie Irving, a predecessor at the prep basketball factory The Patrick School, in his early pickup games against the Cleveland Cavaliers point guard.
"You can ask Kyrie: I was pretty much right at him since Day 1," Bembry said. "That’s something he’s always seen in me, my confidence. I think that’s what got me here."
Bembry needed that immediate sense of belonging in New Jersey’s recruiting hotbed — just as he will need it as he ventures into his rookie season as a first-round NBA draft pick.
At The Patrick School, formerly known as Saint Patrick, he followed in the footsteps of Irving and 2012 second overall pick Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, both of whom led the powerhouse to a state title. His AAU program, Sports U, featured the likes of eventual top pick and 2015 NBA Rookie of the Year Karl Anthony-Towns. The Charlotte import did not come with advanced billing — he graduated as a three-star prospect before accepting a scholarship to Saint Joseph’s — so he was forced to reestablish his defense-first reputation in a new environment.
"It’s pretty much the atmosphere," Bembry said of developing at The Patrick School in Elizabethtown, N.J., and Sports U in Fairfield, N.J. "You’re on the court with No. 1 draft picks. Michael’s a No. 2 draft. Just being able to go against those guys and everybody working hard, it definitely opened my eyes at the time when I was younger to see where I could be."
As the Atlanta Hawks’ selection at No. 21 overall, Bembry enters the professional ranks as a relative outsider once again. He was the third-highest player taken to not play in a Power Five conference or internationally, behind only Kris Dunn (Providence) and Domantas Sabonis (Gonzaga), and his low profile in college basketball rivaled that three-star grade he received out of the high-school ranks.
Simply put, Bembry did not move the meter on draft night. That has yet to disrupt his steady rise.
Hawks general manager Wes Wilcox and his scouting department view Bembry in an entirely different light, of course. His versatility is his allure. His Swiss Army knife approach means he can affect a game in a variety of ways.
At St. Joe’s, he was one of only three players nationally, along with fellow first-round picks Ben Simmons and Denzel Valentine, to average at least 17 points, seven rebounds and four assists, leading his former Hawks to their first NCAA tournament win since the Jameer Nelson-Delonte West team went to the Elite Eight in 2004.
"One of the things we’ve found in evaluating is the more things that you’re able to do on the court, it gives our coaches and it gives an individual player more opportunity to potentially play down the road in the NBA game," Wilcox said. "Versatility for us — and, really, at the analytics movement, our analytics department has really helped us understand this and really driven this home.
"DeAndre’ is a high-analytics player. That just continued, I think, to evolve over the course of three (collegiate) seasons."
Standing in the Philips Arena press room on draft night, Wilcox zeroed in on Bembry’s "special" passing ability, and his advanced ball-handling opens the possibility of positional flexibility. Not only can he orchestrate an offense if needed — Bembry expressed his confidence in playing one through three, point guard to small forward — but he should be able to guard every perimeter position. In fact, his work against point guard Shabazz Napier and UConn in the 2014 NCAA tournament first put him on Atlanta’s radar as a freshman.
Two years down the road, he was sitting on a makeshift stage in a red polo, laughing off the fact that UConn escaped that game in overtime and went on to win the whole thing.
There were tears as well.
With his mother, grandmother and cousin sitting in the front row of Tuesday’s press conference, Bembry fought back emotion, wiping his eyes as his voice cracked, when asked about the death of his brother, Adrian Potts, one week before the NBA draft. The 20-year-old Potts was shot in Charlotte, N.C., on June 11. Police details of the incident remain scarce, but St. Joe’s coach Phil Martelli said he heard the dispute was over a cell phone and that Potts was not present when it began – only when the gunfire started. The two brothers were nearly inseparable until Potts returned to North Carolina for college.
"Pretty much we were best friends since Day 1. Mother was at work and we were either at my grandmother’s house or a cousin’s house, but we were always together," Bembry said. " … The past three to four years, even high school, we would talk about being in this situation. So it’s pretty hard being here but him not being here."