DeAndre' Bembry's mom the Essence of his success at St. Joe's

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Essence Bembry playfully dusts off poster of her son, DeAndre', a junior forward at St. Joseph's.

ESSENCE BEMBRY missed a few games in her son's first two seasons at Saint Joseph's. She has not missed any this season and does not plan to.

"I call it my tour," she said.

She gets just a touch excited watching her older of two sons.

"I'm trying to calm down," Essence said. "I get a little emotional. When he missed some free throws, I felt sick because I don't want him to feel bad. It got to the point where people are looking at me when he's at the line. I had to look normal. Like what do you want me to do?"

Before a game earlier this season, she was at the Landmark across 54th Street from Hagan Arena. She was so nervous she stayed and watched the game on television.

"I just didn't want to see anybody,'' she said. "I walked over after. We won and he played good. I've got to keep my emotions in check. I cried at the Richmond game. It was too much, my stomach turning and then he started doing all that stuff, like, really dude.''

DeAndre' Bembry is that dude, the junior forward at St. Joe's with the game that includes every element of basketball - scoring, passing, ballhandling, rebounding, defense, understanding, leadership, winning.

Bembry played football, baseball and basketball growing up in Charlotte, N.C. Football went first and then baseball. It became all basketball.

Before Bembry's junior year of high school, his mom's work took her from Charlotte back to North Jersey, where she grew up.

"I didn't want to move from Charlotte," Bembry said. "That was my home."

He played regular public school and AAU there. He looked at private schools when they moved. He ended up at the Patrick School (formerly St. Patrick's) in Elizabeth, N.J.

Essence grew up a Celtics fans, loving Larry Bird. She stayed true when her age group - Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen - brought Boston another title.

"I told DeAndré, 'You're going to be Celtic','' Essence said. "He ended up going to St. Pat's and he was a Celtic. He still may be a Celtic.''

Bembry played AAU for Sports U with Josh Brown (Temple), Hallice Cooke (Iowa State), Wade Baldwin (Vanderbilt) and Spencer Weisz (Princeton). Karl Townes was in the age group below.

"They were loaded, they won every tournament, but they won because of him,'' St. Joe's coach Phil Martelli said. "I chased several of those players and didn't get much traction.''

He wasn't getting much traction with Bembry, either.

"When I saw the mail, I saw the picture of Hagan (Arena) and said, 'I'm never going there,' " Bembry remembered. "I put it to the side. In high school, you want to hear the big names.''

Turned out the big names missed on Bembry.

"Finally, I got his mother and she said, 'I'm in charge,' '' said Martelli, when asked to recount the recruiting.

"My mom said talk to him,'' Bembry said. "I did and he was a cool guy.''

Bembry came to campus.

"I knew when he visited here it was going to be very hard for us to get beat,'' Martelli said. "For whatever the reason, she and I connected. She and I connected more than he and I connected, but it was her call.''

Essence was equal part scout and mom.

"I just didn't see any one like him here,'' Essence said. "The other schools, there was someone like him. The truth is every kid wants to play and make your own lane. He'll thank me later, I'm sure.''

How did she know?

"Mom knows it all,'' she said with a smile. "I didn't want him to struggle, have to fight for a position, not that he couldn't beat out anyone in the country . . . ''

In the end, it came down to Temple and St. Joe's.

"I looked on paper as to how much time I would earn,'' Bembry said. "Both have great staffs. It just came down to a chance to play. It was a great team that needed a piece. I gave them that piece.''

In fact, the incredibly athletic small forward was the precise piece to play with seniors Langston Galloway, Ron Roberts and Halil Kanacevic and junior point guard Chris Wilson.

"He walks on campus and it's, 'Oh my God, this is the perfect fit,' " Martelli said. "That summer, we went to Italy and you had no idea who the freshman was. He wasn't wide-eyed.''

Bembry was such a perfect fit that the Hawks won the 2014 Atlantic 10 championship four months after his first game.

Last season was the first time Bembry ever lost at any level. This season, SJU is 19-4 and right back in NCAA Tournament discussion.

Essence was strictly an NBA fan, never used to watch college ball.

"I'm into it, over the top now,'' she said. "It opened my eyes to a lot of things and in the distance. I think he can go far.''

Whenever this season ends, there will be another decision for Bembry to make: play a final season at St. Joe's or put his name in the NBA draft.

"I'm a big fan,'' said one NBA scout. "I think he's a terrific player. He's a basketball player. He has a really high IQ. He can really pass, see the floor, he can dribble; he's a great rebounder. I think in our league, he could guard probably three positions, one through three, depending on the matchups.

"The only question with this kid will always be how well he shoots the ball. I've been to practice a lot. I don't think his shot is broken. A lot of shooting is mental and I don't believe he thinks he's a good shooter. He's a woeful free throw shooter, which is alarming.''

A second scout also likes Bembry with the same caveat.

"He has a position, he's a definite three man, has a terrific basketball IQ and he can really see the floor,'' the scout said. "He's an elite passer. The whole key will be shooting the ball with any kind of range. Right now, he would be a second-round pick in the 40-50 range. If he could shoot the ball, he'd be a solid first-round pick.''

Bembry is averaging 17.0 points, 8.0 rebounds and 4.7 assists this season while shooting 45.5 percent overall, 27.3 percent from the arc and 64.4 percent from the free throw line. His free throw shooting has gotten better from his freshman season (73.5 percent over his last seven games), his three-point shooting worse.

His game was always good. Now, it is really good. In just 88 games at St. Joe's, he has 1,355 points, 578 rebounds, 311 assists, 127 steals and 67 blocks, speaking to all-court versatility that you don't see much at any level of basketball.

"If he was a really good shooter, you'd be talking about him at 15,'' the first scout said. "It's a really bad draft. He's a really good player, but he's going to get knocked down in the draft because he doesn't shoot it great. I think he can play in our league. The things he can do he does really, really well.''

The draft rules have changed for underclassmen this year, giving them a longer window to make a decision and the opportunity to go to the predraft combine in Chicago while still holding the option of going back to college. There is also an NBA committee that evaluates where underclassmen are likely to go in the draft and shares that information with players.

Both scouts agreed that if Bembry declares by the April 24 deadline, he will be invited to Chicago for the May 11-15 combine where there will be drills to perform and games to play. He would then have until May 25 to stay in the draft or withdraw, certainly enough time to make an informed decision.

Bembry got a feel for the league last summer when he was invited to play in the LeBron camp for the top 20 college and high school players in Santa Monica, Calif.

"That was a great experience," Bembry said "It was my first time getting invited to a top camp."

During the day, some NBA players worked out on the beach with them. At night, they scrimmaged and some of the NBA players, Bembry said, "jumped in our game."

DeMarcus Cousins and Paul George were on his team. He played against Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan. LeBron and Kevin Durant were watching that game.

"There were older guys there like Gary Payton and Scottie Pippen," Bembry said. "They were talking to me and they were telling me we think you're the best out here. That definitely lifted my spirits up, but my spirits were already up. The feedback I got on it was great."

He was not, he said, taking pictures. He was learning in case he was going to go against them one day.

For now and perhaps another season, Bembry will go against college players.

"He's an extraordinary player," teammate Zeke Miles said. "He's just a competitor. We feed off his energy. He wants to win so bad. As a teammate, you don't want to let him down."

When he first got to Hawk Hill, the Afro made him stand out. Then, it was his game.

The Afro?

"Definitely not my choice," Essence said. "He started with a Mohawk. I've got to find that picture so everyone can see it. I was like, 'What are you doing?' ''

Essence lives in Summit, N.J., and works within walking distance at Overlook Medical Center as a patient care technician.

"I do everything there," she said. "I've done a lot things, work for the post office, airlines, mortgage counselor, worked at a shelter."

Why?

"I had no choice," she said.

DeAndre's choices are widening. His mom will be there for him and they will consider the options.

Essence does steer clear of giving advice on her son's game.

"He plays, I don't," she said.

jerardd@phillynews.com

On Twitter: @DickJerardi