When DeAndre’ Bembry spoke to the Toronto Raptors media for the first time in training camp he said he signed with Toronto because he wanted to play for a winner. He had played four seasons with Atlanta and it had been three years since he had played on a winning team.
“I think just the character of the organization. I’ve always enjoyed watching, always enjoyed playing against them,” he said. “These guys know how to win, and that was probably the biggest thing that attracted me, they play winning basketball.”
The thing about playing winning basketball is it’s really really tough. The Raptors run one of the NBA’s most complex defensive schemes and it’s not the kind of thing newcomers just transition into with ease.
“We try to set some standards for how we want to play — play hard and guard and kind of like your first test with us is you better want to come out and play some defence,” Raptors coach Nick Nurse said Wednesday. “You better understand the coverages and how we do it if you want to hit the floor.”
It’s the kind of thing that takes a while for new players to learn, Nurse said. Then once they’ve got it down in practice, there are usually growing pains on the court.
Bembry said he knew that coming into the Raptors program. He spent most of training camp peppering his teammates with questions. He promised them if they kept helping him with answers it would eventually pay off.
When the season started, Bembry was buried on the depth chart. He played in just nine of Toronto’s first 18 games, averaging just over five minutes per game, most of which came in on a 20-minute night against the Indiana Pacers.
Then, on January 29, Bembry earned a lengthy look from Nurse. He scored seven points that night and was a plus-ten in a two-point loss to the Sacramento Kings. Since then, Bembry hasn’t missed a game. He’s averaged 21.3 minutes per night and shown far more offensive skill than ever before.
“It’s great. It’s actually big, especially being on a new team, trying to find a role to start, it’s very big,” Bembry said Wednesday night of his recent successes. “I know what time I’m going to go in, I know the situation of the game, I know what I’m going in there to do and it’s going well so far.”
On Wednesday, Bembry was given the superstar assignment off the bench against the Washington Wizards. He spent almost 50% of his defensive possessions defending either Bradley Beal or Russell Westbrook, surrendering just two points to the duo over 16.22 partial possessions, the majority of which came against Beal, according to NBA Stats.
While those defensive numbers are impressive, they shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise considering Bembry’s defensive makeup. He’s always been an above-average defender, it was his offensive game that came with some question marks.
Coming into the year Bembry had just 6.2 points per game over his career on pedestrian shooting numbers. He had shot just 44.8% from the floor and a woeful 26.9% from behind the arc. A lot of that, however, had to do with the Hawks offence asking him to do a little bit too much.
With Toronto, Bembry’s offensive usage has hit a career-low. The Raptors aren’t asking him to create too much on the offensive end and it’s worked for him.
“They know I’m [going to] slash, I’m going to shoot my open shots, and I’m going to play defence,” he said Wednesday.
This season he’s yet to attempt a single off-the-dribble 3-pointer. Instead, he’s 7-for-12 from behind the arc and he’s scoring at the rim at a higher percentage than ever before, according to NBA Stats.
That’s what has made Bembry so successful as of late. He plays the kind of tough defence Nurse demands from his players coupled with an offensive game that fits his skill set. When you put those two things together, you typically have a pretty successful Toronto Raptors.