After spending last year in and out of the G League and the first part of this year sidelined with two separate injuries, DeAndre’ Bembry is finally ready to contribute for the Atlanta Hawks. Exactly how he contributes, however, is a bit of an open question.
Wings who are unable to shoot from outside have to bring a lot of other skills to the table to retain their spot in NBA rotations and while the jury’s not out on Bembry’s inability to hit from beyond the arc, early returns are not looking good for the sophomore. There’s a lot to like about him other than the shot: he profiles as a good secondary playmaker, cuts well, and is a very active defender. There’s a blueprint for players like this to become solid NBA contributors without ever developing as a threat from three, but he’ll have to be near elite in these other categories to get there.
The place to start with Bembry is his ability to handle the ball. The Hawks are very thin in creators, with only two true point guards on the roster when Josh Magette is assigned to Erie. It’s become clear over the past month that Malcolm Delaney is no longer a point guard in Mike Budenholzer’s eyes and is rarely relied upon as the primary creator.
Bembry, at his best, can step in and be that creative force for the team, giving Budenholzer another option in pick-and-roll and allowing him to play different lineups. The Hawks have played just eight minutes this season without a traditional point guard on the floor, but after Bembry’s return, it wouldn’t be surprising to see Atlanta trot out four wings and a big man to see what he can do as a primary creator.
A team trying to win games and make the playoffs doesn’t have the freedom the Hawks have this year. I’ve advocated for it before, but 2017-18 is the year of experiments for Atlanta and the other teams at the bottom of the standings. If it works, then the coaches have something to use in the future. If it doesn’t, then they simply move on to the next experiment.
When wins and losses don’t really matter, teams can do some very weird stuff that just might work or, at the very least, develop a player in a different way to have more NBA-caliber skills. Using Bembry as the primary creator in certain lineups fits the bill.
The thinking behind the idea is this: opposing teams don’t really guard him on the perimeter anyway, but if he has the ball in his hands, they have to deal with him. The ability to handle the ball and make plays for others is the difference between Marcus Smart and other non-shooters like Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Andre Roberson.
Intelligent defenses don’t guard any of these guys when they’re off the ball, but only Smart is an adequate playmaker and thus brings a huge amount of offensive value to the Celtics. Bembry fits that same mold—he’s a lot closer to Marcus Smart offensively than Kidd-Gilchrist or Roberson.
In the above clip, Bembry is spotting up on the right side of the floor and when Taurean Prince uses the screen to go to his right, Joe Harris is waiting for him with both feet in the paint. Prince kicks to Bembry and he misses the open three, but it’s not important that Bembry makes or misses this one shot.
The important part is that opposing defenses don’t respect that shot and leave him open on the perimeter to help elsewhere, bogging down the rest of the Hawks’ offense. When he’s the one handling the ball, they’re forced to contend with him and he becomes much more dangerous. This doesn’t mean that Bembry can’t ever play off the ball when he’s out there; the Hawks’ system requires that all players are able to do both. He’s also a very good cutter, which he uses to take advantage of defenders who have turned their attention elsewhere on the floor.
Another worry of a lineup missing a true point guard is that there wouldn’t be anybody on the floor to guard the opposing team’s point guard. Well, Bembry solves that problem too, as he’s able to guard everyone from point guards to power forwards. He plays with immense energy on the defensive end, even going so far as to outright deny his man the ball at times:
Don’t focus on the fact that Rondae Hollis-Jefferson eventually scored on his drive to the rim—Bembry single-handedly blew up the Nets offense by not allowing Spencer Dinwiddie to have the ball. Brooklyn couldn’t get anything going and had to settle for an isolation against a set defense, one of the least efficient shots in the sport. It went in this time, but that sort of defensive effort and instincts for the angles on the perimeter makes Bembry a fascinating defensive prospect.
This time, Bembry gets switched onto Arron Afflalo and completely stonewalls his drive, then sprints all the way from the weak-side corner to the opposite elbow to steal the pass. All of Bembry’s defensive gifts are on display here: he was originally assigned to defend point guard (and Hawks legend) Shelvin Mack, switches onto Afflalo, then has the recognition to go all the way across the court to get the steal. When he brings energy and instincts like this, Bembry can be one of the better all-around defenders in the league.
The advanced on/off numbers don’t quite add up to what the film shows, but the hope for the Hawks is that it has more to do with his teammates at the time and the small sample size of minutes he’s played so far in his young career. He’s only played a total of 433 minutes of non-garbage time across his two seasons, so it’s not exactly fair to look at his on/off defensive metrics and conclude that he’s not helping the team on that end. There are certainly instances in which he overhelps or plays the passing lanes too much, but the coaching staff should be able to iron out those mistakes without taking away his core defensive instincts.
After a slew of injuries derailed the beginning of his second season, Bembry is healthy and ready to make his name in the league. He has holes in his game, as any second-year player would, but he brings a lot of enviable skills in an athletic, knowledgeable package that can be molded into almost any player the Hawks want him to become.
The Hawks should use this year to give him and some of their other young players a lot of leeway to try different things in order to evaluate which players can produce in a variety of circumstances and Bembry should be near the top of that list, since his versatility makes him perhaps the most intriguing of the Hawks’ young players, even if fellow 2016 draftee Prince and rookie John Collins are more reputable prospects and perhaps have higher ceilings than Bembry.