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Hawks' Bembry is hair to stay

DeAndre' Bembry has been the A-10 and the city's best player this season, but he knows he's not NBA-ready.

DeAndre' Bembry is committed to not heading to the NBA until he is ready. (Yong Kim/Staff Photographer)
DeAndre' Bembry is committed to not heading to the NBA until he is ready. (Yong Kim/Staff Photographer)Read moreYONG KIM / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

FROM HEAD to toe, everything about DeAndre' Bembry indicates he is more style than substance.

His audacious Afro transfixes everyone who sees him, on City Avenue or in a Saint Joseph's classroom or in Hagen Arena. Nearly as wide as his shoulders and cropped over his ears, it is a mushroom cloud of basketball funk, an explosion of retro chic.

On his chin he grows a wispy goatee more than 2 inches long. It has never been shaved.

Glance down and witness psychedelic socks.

The inevitable tattoos, the predictable piercings - they all would represent his further, deep need for notice; his well of insecurity; his ache for individuality. Considering Bembry's sensational sophomore season, they would burst into a bouquet of metal and mania as soon as he hits the NBA this fall.

Except he has no piercings. He has no tattoos.

And he will have no NBA.

Bembry, the best player in the Atlantic 10 and the Big 5, is the rarest of birds; trademarked by his plumage but grounded by resolve.

He has NBA talent but he lacks NBA skills, so he won't go pro before he is ready. Rest assured, street agents have been leaving messages. Bembry isn't even returning the calls.

"I feel I definitely could make some noise, do some things in the NBA," Bembry said. "I'm nowhere near where I want to be. I have to improve a lot of things. My handle would need to get a lot better. I could have a chance when I finish with college basketball."

It is a tribute to his rising fame that he already has a tribute Twitter account, "@fearthefro43," which issues mostly follicle-based braggadocio.

It is a tribute to his humility that he quickly distances himself from anything as self-serving as that. His handle is "@colderthan_fire."

Hey, he isn't completely without ego.

The 6-6 Bembry was 6-4 by the time he was 15, so he was asked to play forward and center. He converted to guard as a high school senior. The conversion continues.

The defense comes naturally.

He usually is assigned to the other team's most potent offensive player, the role he assumed as a freshman with the Hawks' senior-laden lineup that won the Atlantic 10 Tournament.

"He finished that picture his first day on campus," Hawks coach Phil Martelli said. "He made the picture seamless."

That team produced three professionals - Langston Galloway, the Knicks' point guard; forward Ronald Roberts, who was on the Sixers' roster and played in the D-League and in the Philippines this season; and swingman Halil Kanecvic, who went to Slovenia.

That trio accounted for 60 percent of the Hawks' scoring and 62 percent of its rebounding. Streak-shooting point guard Chris Wilson rounded out the starting lineup, and he returned for his senior season, but none of the reserves last year averaged even 12 minutes per game.

As such, the Hawks begin this year's A-10 Tournament today against St. Bonaventure as the 10th seed, 13-17 overall, 7-11 in the conference.

If last year's picture was "Mona Lisa," this year's picture is "Dogs Playing Poker." Bembry is the purebred, and he's holding a pat hand.

"This year, the picture starts with him," Martelli said. "I haven't been able to get the pieces around him to settle in on enough occasions. He's being asked to do more than I ever anticipated him having to do, but his response has been much greater than I would have thought."

Bembry's 17.9 scoring average is a 5.8-point increase, and his A-10 average of 19.1 led the conference. He also improved by more than an assist per game (3.9), added more than three rebounds (7.8) and doubled his steals (1.9). He led St. Joseph's in each category.

Davidson guard Tyler Kalinoski and his team stunned the league by winning the regular-season title, so Kalinoski was named the conference's player of the year. La Salle transfer Jordan Price was a revelation in Philadelphia. Villanova is ranked No. 4 in the country and has a quartet of indispensible starters.

Really, though, no player in the conference or the city matched Bembry's performance . . . or his workload.

He had shown the talent to handle it, as the A-10 co-Rookie of the Year and the Big 5 Rookie of the Year. He could run and jump and he had excellent instincts.

But he knew he lacked the depth of skill required to lead a team.

He shot with a flying elbow. He struggled to square himself coming off screens, lacking body control and balance. He turned the ball over too often in the open court. His ballhanding did not approach the level it needed to be to maneuver against multiple defenders. He was nowhere near strong enough to endure as a top threat for the 30-game grind.

Bembry spent last summer in Philadelphia and applied himself to all of those problems. A year later, those issues have been remediated, but they remain.

In the second half against La Salle last week his elbow flew, his legs faded, he gave it away at midcourt and he was stymied by double-teams and switches.

Still, he engineered an upset in a breathtaking, 5-minute stretch. He owned every loose ball and every rebound, found his teammates, made shots and free throws.

"He really struggled tonight but still had 13 rebounds, nine assists and played lock-down defense," said Dr. John Giannini, La Salle's coach, who three seasons ago coached all-around dynamo Ramon Galloway and the Explorers to the Sweet 16.

Bembry was 4-for-19 with five turnovers and scored just 14 points against La Salle. Ignore the line.

"He played terrific. He was a gigantic factor in them winning the game," Giannini said. "We talk all the time about the difference between being a great scorer and a great player. I tip my hat to him. They won the game because of that."

Bembry acknowledged that he simply decided to take the game over; that he is the special sort of player who has the capacity to control the outcome. He plays 38.6 minutes out of 40. Martelli fears Bembry will burn out, so he won't let him practice on Mondays.

"He will play every play in practice like it's the biggest game of the year. Every drill. Every scrimmage," Martelli said. "It's the way he's wired. He's wired to win."

It was similar with Delonte West, another combo guard who helped the Hawks reach the Elite Eight in 2004, then spent 9 years in the NBA.

"Except Delonte was volatile when he didn't win," Martelli said. "DeAndre' will just concentrate on what he can do to win the next time."

The next time, next year, will be in Philadelphia. Essence Bembry, his mother, will continue to drive in from New Jersey for home games. His brother and best friend, 19-year-old Adrian Potts, visits almost every weekend now; he might attend St. Joe's next year.

They can go for haircuts together. Bembry needs one every 2 weeks or so: "Otherwise, it would get crazy."

It seems like an easy point of derision, but fans and foes don't bother to pester him.

"Most of the time they can't talk smack," he said, in a rare indulgence to ego, "because they can't guard me."

Besides, ladies love its soft sheen: "Everybody wants to touch it."

It's the real thing, just like him; un-inked, unpierced, unrushed.

"I never thought of anything I wanted to put on my body forever," said Bembry, who simply shuns any image that does not reflect his values. "I'm definitely not getting braids. This is who I am."

Bembry wants to develop a game like Thunder guard Russell Westbrook, a two-way terror, but Bembry knows his own image is more along the lines of hirsute Rocket man James Harden:

" 'Fear the Beard.' That's what they say about him, right?''

For Bembry, then:

Beware the Hair.