The basketball players I’m often most interested in are glue guys. The NBA is a superstar’s league, with many of the same players going deep in the postseason each year. Glue guys exist on the margins; they show up with a big three every now and then, maybe with a clutch steal, but they are generally perceived as secondary/accessory parts to the main engines of the league.
These players usually have a more narrowly defined skill set, with clear weak points, and typically don’t post numbers that leap out on a box sheet. For three years, fans of the Atlanta Hawks were treated to one of the better exemplars of the glue guy archetype in Thabo Sefolosha.
Sefolosha’s work, particularly on defense, radiated beyond his raw numbers. As such, the veteran’s value was most present in the effectiveness of lineups he infused with his selective offense, cerebral defense, and overall usefulness.
While few glue guys achieve Sefolosha’s impact, others can copy his blueprint: knowing your weaknesses, picking your spots, and prioritizing making winning plays. Every team needs players like that.
Without a player like Sefolosha on the current Hawks roster, I’ve turned my interest to DeAndre’ Bembry. Dubbed the “Tasmanian Devil” by Cole Zwicker of The Stepien, Bembry is a double-edged sword of a glue guy.
Since he was drafted, along with Taurean Prince, in the first round of the 2016 NBA Draft, Hawks fans have become accustomed to the ‘DeAndre’ Bembry Experience,’ best encapsulated by a savvy steal leading to a transition opportunity, then (at least occasionally) to a turnover.
Indeed, over his four seasons in Atlanta, Bembry has never posted a turnover percentage better than 13th percentile among his position, per Cleaning the Glass, including this season. Apart from his rookie year, he has never failed to rank below 87th percentile in steal percentage, either.
Blessed with great hands, but not always great discretion, Bembry has been a maddening player in some respects. An afterthought in his first two seasons, he has ascended to a regular role in Atlanta’s rotation under Lloyd Pierce.
Travis Schlenk will soon have a decision to make regarding his future with the team. Bembry, whose rookie deal expires at the end of the season, has shown glimpses, but not substance.
As a potential “second contract” player, Bembry might be worth a longer look. But first, let’s take a look at what he’s doing this season.
Improved offensive efficiency
No one would consider Bembry a good offensive player — or even necessarily a solid one — at this juncture. For the entirety of his early career, he’s been an overall negative on offense. Pick a metric: BPM, PIPM, RPM, etc., and Bembry is a minus on the offensive end.
His aforementioned penchant for turning the ball over has been a major problem. So, too, has his outside shooting. For his career, he’s a 28 percent shooter from three-point range, a paltry mark for a wing.
While he’s still somewhat of a young player at age 25, it’s unlikely that he ever develops into anything approaching a consistent threat from beyond the arc; his team will settle for him knocking down the occasional open corner three.
But that limitation from the perimeter, in conjunction with his poor decision making with the ball, present daunting challenges in becoming a neutral offensive player. It’s possible — or even likely — that he never becomes a positive on offense.
That said, he has made improvements through the quarter mark of the campaign.
As of Dec. 5, Bembry is currently posting his highest career true shooting percentage, at a below-average, yet reasonable, mark of 52 percent. Likewise, he also has career bests in effective field goal percentage (75th percentile) and points per shot attempt (42nd percentile). These are acceptable marks for a defense-first wing, and especially one with perceived offensive deficiencies like Bembry.
How he’s accomplished this is interesting.
Paradoxically, in spite of his improvements in efficiency, Bembry is currently posting his lowest average in three point percentage since his rookie season, at a woeful 26 percent. But, for the most part, he barely attempts them.
Amid an offense that prioritizes three point volume, just 22 percent of Bembry’s shot attempts come from beyond the arc, down from 25 percent from the past season. Overall, he ranks in the 10th percentile among his position in percentage of shot attempts from three.
When he does shoot triples, he prefers the shorter distance from the corners; almost half of his three point attempts come from the corners, good for 69th percentile and up from 26th percentile from the season prior.
He’s also cut back on his attempts from mid-range.
After ranking 29th percentile in all shots from mid-range, he’s down to just 8th percentile in that category. And almost all of his mid-range shots are of the short variety, where he ranks an elite 96th percentile in accuracy.
Overall, Bembry has been more selective with his jumpers this season, from both mid-range and deep, and it’s translated to better efficiency.
Moreover, the 25-year-old is largely eschewing jumpers in favor of more shots at the rim, which are better shots. A remarkable 62 percent of Bembry’s shots come at the rim, which puts him in the 100th percentile for his position.
I think it’s likely that the coaching staff has worked with him to prioritize shots at the rim, since he’s unlikely to generate the sort of analytically-friendly looks they want from the perimeter. And with a 58% field goal percentage at the rim (56th percentile), Bembry has translated his volume into acceptable efficiency.
Taken together, while his turnover issues have not subsided, Bembry’s improved efficiency has resulted in his posting the best offensive box plus/minus of his career so far, by a large margin. For his career, he’s averaged a very poor -3.5 OBPM, which is an estimate of the offensive points per 100 possessions a player contributed above a league average player. This season, Bembry has contributed a -1.6 OBPM — still below average, but much more acceptable.
His offensive improvement, in tandem with his usual good work on the defensive end (+1.2 DBPM), works out to a net -0.4 box plus/minus; considering that a BPM of 0.0 is league average, Bembry is playing at an above-replacement rate (-2). He’s been at the level of a rotation player, a strong step in the positive direction in his development.
With the usual caveat that this is still the early going of the 2019-20 campaign, and he could regress, it’s encouraging to see Bembry becoming less of a nuisance on offense, allowing him to maximize his defensive contributions.
Bembry’s role with the Hawks
Coming into the season, there were doubts whether Bembry would find consistent playing time at all. Following the offseason additions of Evan Turner and Jabari Parker - two similarly poor outside shooters - it was reasonable to wonder if the Hawks’ second unit could find enough spacing to accommodate Bembry in the final year of his rookie contract.
Not helping matters, Atlanta used significant draft capital on De’Andre Hunter and Cam Reddish, providing further competition for minutes for a player on an expiring contract.
However, a phasing out of Bembry has not come to pass, at least to this point. Although Atlanta’s run of injuries have played a role, Bembry is currently achieving a career high in minutes per game.
Coach Pierce seems to like Bembry, and even when the Hawks are back to full strength, it’s hard to envision a scenario in which he would drop out of Atlanta’s rotation. And nor should he, as he remains the Atlanta’s best perimeter defender.
Advanced metrics favor Bembry’s defense. Among metrics which measure defensive impact, Bembry consistently grades out as Atlanta’s best wing defender. He leads all qualifying Hawks perimeter players in FiveThirtyEight’s defensive RAPTOR rating. He does the same in BBall-Index’s D-PIPM metric, and in Basketball Reference’s defensive box plus/minus.
Over his career, Bembry has maintained a 2.3 percent steal rate. This season, he’s posting a career high 2.7 percent, which ranks 98th percentile for his position. A playmaking defender with a sturdy 6’6 frame and a 6’9 wingspan, Bembry has great instincts for accumulating stocks — blocks and steals — and he has the athleticism and versatility to defend both guard spots. Notably, Pierce has chosen to take Trae Young out of the game in crucial defensive situations in order to take advantage of Bembry’s ability to deter opposing point guards.
Effectively, Bembry operates as the familiar “energy guy” off the bench, bringing defensive intensity and a bit of creation, as well. He can certainly hurt you on his bad offensive nights, but there simply aren’t many options for impact defense on Atlanta’s roster.
As a pending restricted free agent (should the Hawks levy a qualifying offer), Schlenk should take the full view of what Bembry brings to the table. Despite being 25, Bembry is still young in development years, having only played 64 games in his first two seasons before playing all 82 last year. Somewhat like his former teammates, Kent Bazemore, it’s possible Bembry could be a late bloomer, rewarding the team that invests in him.
Long-term outlook in Atlanta
With significant cap space next summer, Schlenk will have no shortage of options for filling out Atlanta’s rotation in 2020. He could look to any number of options in free agency, as well as the draft, which might prohibit Bembry’s return to Atlanta; there just might not be enough minutes to go around to invest in Bembry.
That said, Bembry should still receive worthwhile consideration for a second contract.
While his offense still leaves much to be desired, there just aren’t a lot of wings who offer the defensive versatility of Bembry. Given more time to develop, it’s possible he could pursue a Sefolosha-esque trajectory and turn into a reliable glue guy. At the same point in his career, Sefolosha posted similar numbers.
Looking down the line, in the playoffs, wings who can defend are especially important, and given the defensive questions in Atlanta’s current core, Bembry could play a role as a defensive specialist in a potential playoff rotation. I mentioned earlier how Pierce has subbed Bembry in for Young during key defensive possessions; it’s possible that will be a pattern throughout the point guard’s career, and Bembry could fill that role — albeit a small one in that sense — going forward.
Since it’s likely that defensive impact in the backcourt will always be a desirable trait in a Young-led team, Atlanta should consider re-signing Bembry provided that his deal is reasonable. In general, teams should take advantage of the restricted status of their free agents and, in general, be wary of giving up on players too soon, especially at the more premium positions.
In Atlanta, we’ve seen how late bloomers like Kent Bazemore and DeMarre Carroll became key pieces on good teams. While Bembry may not ultimately enjoy a similar outcome, few would have predicted that those two would turn into respectable NBA starters at similar points in their own careers. When building a team, it’s smart to make reasonable bets on wing talent, especially if they can defend.
But what might a reasonable second contract for Bembry look like?
According to BBall-Index’s PIPM Career Projection Tool, Bembry’s five year value in terms of wins added is estimated at $35.6 million, or $7.1 million annually. An annual amount in that range is a fairly reasonable discussion figure, though close to $7 million per season would be on the higher end value. Anything more than that, barring an unforeseen leap on offense, would certainly constitute a walk-away point. Furthermore, a figure approaching $7-8 million is unlikely on the market to begin with, even in a free agency period featuring diminished options.
For example, Jabari Parker — a vastly superior offensive player — received only a two-year deal this past summer at $6.5 million per season with a player option on the second year. Parker is a different case, especially when accounting for pedigree and injury history, but Dorian Finney-Smith, who has some similarities with Bembry as a glue guy type, signed for three seasons at a total of $12 million.
Finney-Smith’s contract, at least in the dollar figure per annum, is a good comparison deal for Bembry; something in the $4-6 million range over a similar number of years would be ideal if the Hawks plan to bring him back. While there will certainly be other defensive-minded wings on the market next summer, Bembry’s familiarity with the team, age, and defensive versatility would make him perhaps the best option realistically available in that price range. And at that range, if Bembry were to take another step forward in his development, he could provide surplus value on his next deal.
That said, it would be perfectly fine if Schlenk chose to move on. Bembry’s improved offensive efficiency — if it lasts — gives him enough intrigue to consider him as an auxiliary piece in Atlanta’s plans. Every team needs role players, and the Hawks sorely need defensive impact. As such, he could be a useful piece for filling out a roster on a cost-controlled deal. You have your core players, and you have your secondary players. Bembry fits into the latter.
If Bembry could develop into a sort of Sefolosha-type player, he would be easily worth an investment within the parameters discussed here. With that said, his development could go in different directions. It’s possible he’s plateauing, or his best years of production could be ahead.
The personnel decisions that organizations make on the margins matter. In short, you’re either getting better or you’re getting worse.
Here’s hoping DeAndre’ Bembry keeps getting better.