Freshman Bembry makes immediate impact at St. Joe's

Saint Joseph's Deandre' Bembry. (Clem Murray/Staff Photographer)

If DeAndre' Bembry were a lesser basketball player, he might just be known for a great head of hair.

"My family tells me [on television] they always talk about [my] Afro, 'the '80s . . . Julius Erving,' stuff like that," the St. Joseph's Hawks freshman said. "I definitely enjoy it, especially the chants that go against me, like 'mushroom head.' "

If his game were less dimensional, Bembry could be known for top-10-worthy dunks and an ability to get from one spot to another, like to the basket, with NBA 2K14-worthy quickness.

How Bembry really will be remembered on Hawk Hill this season has more to do with substance than style. Put him down as the missing part who changed everything.

"As close to the perfect piece as we could get," Hawks coach Phil Martelli said this week.

Not the perfect player, the perfect piece. Not the star, not yet. Understand why, in the midst of celebrating an Atlantic 10 title on Sunday, St. Joe's jubilant seniors also were privately thanking a freshman out there on the court. "We had heart-to-heart moments, so that was really big," Bembry said. "They're thanking me almost, like, every day for choosing St. Joe's."

He's not the MVP, but St. Joe's wouldn't be within a sniff of Thursday's NCAA East Regional game against Connecticut without the 6-foot-6 guard.

Halil Kanacevic remembers Bembry going up to block a Ronald Roberts Jr. dunk last summer. Not a sight often seen.

"That's a pretty competitive play," Kanacevic said. "You can tell how competitive a guy he is."

How many times do freshmen come into college basketball and get assigned to the opponent's top perimeter scorer? Pretty much from the start with Bembry.

"I always knew that I could guard the best player," Bembry said this week at Hagan Arena as the 10th-seeded Hawks prepared to face No. 7 UConn in Buffalo. "I don't think any of the other players actually knew. They thought I was just a regular freshman coming in."

Of his high school days at the Patrick School in Elizabeth, N.J., Bembry said: "I learned how to pressure the ball and do gap [defense] as well. You've got to actually want to do it, too. I'm just one of the people that actually wants to play defense."

In past seasons, star guards facing the Hawks rarely had anyone taller than 6-2 guarding them. Martelli talked about how Langston Galloway was up to the task, but in addition to being 6-2, he's St. Joe's top offensive guard.

"There would be times, you can look through his seasons and you'd say, 'Man, what happened to him that game?' " Martelli said, speaking of Galloway's getting worn down.

Martelli talked about Galloway's strong season-long shooting when he was asked about Bembry's defense. That kind of basketball math can go under the radar.

"He's a tough kid," Kanacevic said of Bembry. "You can tell he's got that internally, like, he churns and churns - he wants to win, he wants to compete. Coach gives him his assignment. He wants to shut down the best player on the opposite team."

On UConn, that player is Huskies guard Shabazz Napier. Bembry didn't know the game plan yet. He just assumes he'll have his chance to guard Napier. How important an assignment? In UConn's victories, Napier shot 46.2 percent; in losses, 32.2 percent. Either way, he's going to launch a lot of shots.

"I'm definitely going to look forward to guarding him," Bembry said. "He's one of the best scorers in the nation. Definitely a big step up for me as a freshman, to play such a talent like that."

Martelli raved this week about the job Bembry did on top St. Bonaventure scorer Matthew Wright, who made 1 of 9 shots in the A-10 semifinal. The reason Martelli raved was that Bembry made only 1 of 7 shots himself.

"He wasn't making shots, but man, he just kept running and running and running," Martelli said, "and every time we would be in a timeout, I would say: 'They have to go to Wright.' He would look me dead in the eye and say, 'I got it.' That's all I needed to know."

Bembry is third on the Hawks in scoring (12.0 points a game), and his shooting percentage is actually slightly higher in losses (46.9 percent) than in wins (45.4 percent).

"He makes shots," Martelli said. "Sometimes he makes shots because he believes that shot is going in."

Of all the St. Joe's players, and probably of all the guards in the Big Five, you could most easily see Bembry with an NBA future, especially if his shot becomes reliable. But that wasn't the vibe he brought to the team, which tells you why the Hawks' stars were thanking him.

"He's never come here and been entitled to anything," Martelli said. "He came here and said, 'What do you want me to do?' "