TORONTO — Like many growing up, DeAndre’ Bembry’s favourite player was Vince Carter.
Watching the now-retired star effortlessly glide through the air and come down with hammer dunks left Bembry in awe. This feeling got rekindled once again for Bembry over his past two seasons with the Atlanta Hawks as he got to witness Carter up close as a teammate.
“It was just funny to me how he can still dunk better than me at the age that I am and the age that he is,” said Bembry. “Just seeing, after practice, him being able to still windmill and watch him do dunks that I've watched him do over the years.”
The majority of those gravity-defying moments you think of when Carter comes to mind place him snugly in a purple Toronto Raptors uniform, the team that Bembry now finds himself on.
From getting a chance to play with your childhood hero to then playing for the team that made said hero famous in the first place, Bembry’s young NBA career has already taken a few interesting turns.
Now with the Raptors, however, Bembry is hoping his career will take a turn in a more winning direction.
Originally drafted by the Hawks in 2016 (21st overall), for the first four seasons of Bembry’s career he hasn’t known a lot of success, watching his team bow out to the Washington Wizards in the first round of the 2017 playoffs before sitting through three seasons of losing Atlanta basketball that saw the team never sport a winning percentage better than .354.
With the Raptors now, however, Bembry’s hoping things will be a lot different.
“These guys know how to win, and that was probably the biggest thing that attracted me, they play winning basketball,” Bembry said over Zoom Wednesday. “I love to play team basketball and I see myself being able to fit in this group very easily.”
You could certainly do a lot worse than the Raptors if you’re looking for a winning culture. Toronto has made the playoffs in seven straight seasons (reaching at least the second round for five years straight), they have the reigning coach of the year and, in case you may have forgotten, won it all just two seasons ago.
As such, it was an easy decision for Bembry to sign with the Raptors but, perhaps more importantly, Bembry should be a natural fit for what the Raptors want to do.
A high-level athlete with strong defensive chops who can man-up on the perimeter and is adept at playing passing lanes, Bembry looks like he could be an intriguing piece for Raptors coach Nick Nurse to use as a defensive specialist.
“Bembry is somebody that I know our front office and scouts have really liked for a long time, and now they had a chance to get him,” Nurse said Wednesday. “There's a level of toughness and defence and playmaking, just kind of a high-IQ guy. So I'm interested to see that.”
Added Bembry: “If you know me as a player you know I hang my hat on being very good defensively. I hate it when people score on me and I take it to heart. … Defence is one of my best attributes and I’m looking forward to getting out there with some other guys that can do the same thing and I think the sky’s the limit for us defensively and I think I can definitely help this group for sure.”
The pride Bembry said he takes on the defensive end will surely endear him to Toronto's coaching staff and given the fact he also mentioned wanting to learn how to better take charges from the charge-taking king himself Kyle Lowry, he’ll likely gain some support among Raptors fans.
But while Bembry does appear to have the right attitude to begin his Raptors tenure, there’s bound to be some growing pains that come with adjusting to life with a new organization, new teammates, a new coaching staff and, in Bembry’s case a whole new NBA-playing environment.
As one of the NBA’s bottom-feeders, the Hawks were one of the eight teams left out of the bubble experience last season, so Bembry never got to experience what bubble life was like with daily COVID testing and the strangeness of playing in an empty arena among other challenges that were part of the Disney World campus experiment.
Now with the Raptors in Tampa, Fla., however, Bembry will get his first taste of what many of his Raptors teammates have already grown somewhat accustomed to.
“Unfortunately, last year we weren’t able to make it to the bubble so I’m still gonna have to get used to no fans and being able to bring my own energy and just that whole environment because I wasn’t able to go through that process yet,” said Bembry.
Luckily for Bembry, however, he’ll at least have some familiarity with him on the team to help him adjust to his new digs and playing NBA basketball in the era of COVID-19.
Among the many moves the Raptors made this off-season, the team picked up centre Alex Len, who was a teammate of Bembry’s with the Hawks for all of 2018-19 and part of last season before he was traded to the Sacramento Kings.
Bembry said he and Len were close on the Hawks and he’s looking forward to playing with the big man once again.
“I would probably say Alex Len is probably the closest person, obviously, because of Atlanta,” said Bembry when asked who on the Raptors he was most familiar with. “He was actually one of the closest guys I was close with [on] that team. Alex, he's a seven-footer, plays defence, he can shoot the three as a big, he's just a big presence. He's a good guy and I think he'll help this team for sure.”
Of course, Bembry’s also hoping to be an asset for the Raptors this coming season, and while his role likely isn’t going to be the biggest there’s definitely a role for him to carve out this season and as training camp gets going it’ll be up to him to take this opportunity in front of him and make the most of it.
“We’ve got a bunch of options and a bunch of guys that just go out there and want to go get it,” said Bembry. “I feel very comfortable already even though we haven’t even started practice yet. I feel very comfortable and ready for the season.”