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Who is Dragan Bender?
10:19 | NBA
Who is Dragan Bender?
Tuesday June 14th, 2016

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Shabazz Napier set the American Athletic Conference on fire during the league’s inaugural 2013–14 season. His sizzling, shake-and-bake drives and audacious, 30-foot three-pointers powered UConn back to the NCAA tournament after a one-year hiatus. The Huskies created mayhem that tournament, clawing their way to a national title despite drawing a 7-seed in the East Region. But Napier’s march to the championship nearly came to a close before it even began.

A gangly, bearded and afroed freshman forward from St. Joseph’s agitated the collegiate superstar throughout the opening half of UConn’s first round battle with the 10-seeded Hawks. Little known DeAndre’ Bembry, 6’6” with a 6’9.25” wingspan, caged the smaller, slithery Napier throughout the first half. He scored just five points on 2–8 shooting as St. Joe’s unexpectedly carried a five–point lead into intermission. “Do you know DeAndre’ now?” his mother, Essence Bembry shouted at Napier from the stands. “Introduce yourself!”

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NBA prospect DeAndre' Bembry’s brother shot and killed

The Huskies ultimately forced overtime, escaped with an 89–81 win and never looked back. “You always have those woulda, coulda, shoulda-beens,” said Knicks guard Langston Galloway, those Hawks’ leading scorer. “They end up just rolling through the tournament like it was nothing.” Napier was far from rolling that Friday evening, however, needing 22 shots to score his team-high 24 points. He now knew Bembry all too well, as did a plethora of NBA scouts. Today, he’s considered a surefire first round pick in the June 23 NBA draft. “That’s the reason why we took UConn to the wire,” said former St. Joe’s forward Ronald Roberts. “I feel like he was a senior like us. I’ve never really seen anything like that.”

Bembry had faced a similar situation before. Three summers prior, running in one of The Patrick School’s renowned open gyms in Elizabeth, N.J., the program’s most-famous alumni, Kyrie Irving, returned to his roots. Irving arrived home as the freshly crowned No. 1 overall pick in the 2011 NBA draft. “It was all about Kyrie,” said St. Pat’s head coach Chris Chavannes. “We’d tend to stargaze a little bit. Whereas with DeAndre’, he just relished it and just went out and played. DeAndre’ respects all but fears none. He wanted to prove how good he was.” 

Irving and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, who was picked second in the 2012 draft, headlined pickup games the next summer. St. Patrick’s star-studded alumni scrimmaged against the current iteration of the Jersey powerhouse. “When we did lose, we had to run,” Bembry said. He got in Irving’s face, crowded his airspace to challenged the guard’s otherworldly handle. “We were just going at it,” Bembry said. “At the time, when I’m on the court, I’m not thinking ‘He’s the No. 1 draft pick.’ I’m just playing basketball.”

Bembry’s basketball roots trace back to Charlotte’s Nevins Park. At 18 years old, Essence migrated south just weeks before Bembry was born, fleeing the violence that lingered on the dark streets of Newark, N.J., for the slower pace of North Carolina. “I don’t know how we made it, but we made it,” Essence said. By day, she worked as a US Airways gate agent. By night, she cheered for the Boston Celtics, harboring a passion for green since Larry Bird topped Magic Johnson in the 1984 NBA Finals.

Essence’s envisioned her son one day playing in a Celtic uniform. In a sense, her dream came true in the twilight of the modern Big Three era. Before the 2011–12 school year, Essence moved her two sons back to New Jersey, having secured a medical assistant post at Overlook Hospital in Summit, N.J. Seeking the next stage in his basketball journey, DeAndre’ visited the St. Patrick’s Celtics the spring break prior, wandering into an open gym. “I remember it clearly,” Chavannes said. 

The coach first noticed the mangy afro. Bembry and his AAU teammates decided to grow the old-fashioned hairstyles during a sophomore season road trip. He chopped it off once, only to miss a handful of layups and struggle the duration of his next game. “I wasn’t feeling comfortable. I wasn’t on my game. I just needed to get the afro back,” Bembry said. It’s only grown more voluminous since. Next, Bembry’s smooth, all-around game—back cuts, back screens and efficient bounce passes—struck Chavannes. “What stood out the most was how athletic he was and how unselfish he was and how competitive he was from the get-go,” Chavannes said. 

• MORE NBA: Where is Bembry slotted in our latest mock draft?

Adrian Potts witnessed Bembry's progression at Nevins Park. He followed his older brother, Bembry, just one year his senior, to whatever court or field he visited. “We spent most of our life together,” Bembry said. “We pretty much did everything together.” Until Potts returned south for college the fall after Bembry’s first season at St. Joe’s. He wanted to be a lawyer, aspiring to one day handle his older brother’s off-court affairs. Potts convinced Essence to vote for Bernie Sanders in the New Jersey primary this month. “‘We have to help the people,’” said Barbarita Springer, Essence’s aunt. “That was his whole mindset.” Potts opted to spend the summer working in Charlotte in an operations role at a store near his grandmother and great-grandmother, Vicki and Bessie Bembry.

He had gathered with friends on Friday to watch the Golden State Warriors’ convincing Game 4 win over the Cleveland Cavaliers in the NBA Finals. Early in the evening an argument spilled out into the parking lot, though Potts ran to mitigate the situation before it escalated. “He always tried to keep the peace,” Springer said. Later on, another dispute arose after a young lady at the party lost her phone, Springer said the police informed her family. Police told the family two shooters, partygoers unaffiliated with Potts’s close friends, sprayed 35 to 45 shots into the apartment around 3 a.m. Saturday.

Three victims suffered non-life threatening gunshot wounds. Potts was declared dead at the scene, the most unfortunate instance of wrong place, wrong time. He was just 20 years old. The family will bury Potts on Thursday, June 16, exactly one week before NBA commissioner Adam Silver will call Bembry’s name. “It's surreal if anything else,” said Phil Martelli, Bembry's coach at St. Joseph's. 

• MORE NBA: NBA draft rumors | Calipari: 76ers should pick Murray No. 1

Jared Wickerham/Getty Images

The NBA first became possible for Bembry after he seamlessly meshed with Martelli’s St. Joe's squad as a freshman. He joined a senior triumvirate of Galloway, Roberts and Halil Kanacevic. Junior guard Chris Wilson completed the starting lineup, which combined for all but 39 of the 200 minutes available for the Hawks each game that season. “The first workout we were like, ‘Wow, he fits,’” Martelli says. “He’s the piece to this puzzle.” The unit pushed St. Joes to a 24–9 season, securing the Hawks’ first A–10 title since 1997. 

For the next two seasons, Bembry performed a Kawhi Leonard impression. He blossomed into St. Joe’s leading scorer as a sophomore at 17.7 points per game, making good on the poise a young Bembry played with, the incredible court vision that wowed Martelli upon first meeting. “I’ve always been able to read and react faster than other guys since I was younger,” Bembry says. 

The St. Joe’s coach originally went to recruit Bembry’s AAU teammate, but left the gym with a different priority. “I was enamored the first time I saw him,” Martelli said. “I came back to my coaches, I said, ‘I really, really want that kid.’ I think he’s got it. He’s not a guard, he’s not a forward, he’s not a shooter, he’s not a scorer. He’s a basketball player.” 

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Five things to know about Dragan Bender

The college game often seemed easy to Bembry. Throughout a season in which he and Isaiah Miles led the Hawks back to the NCAA tournament in March, he’d patiently wait through defensive reads, appearing to lack a sense of urgency. “There is this notion that he doesn’t play hard. He’s relentless. He’s just at a point, he has this basketball IQ that evolves around his vision. It’s just a little bit slower than him,” Martelli says. It’s like listening to rhythmic jazz on the car ride to an EDM concert: Bembry can appreciate the simplicity of the game while also flushing acrobatic, reverse jams. “He just has an old spirit,” Martelli says. “He’s cool. He’s an old man in a young body.”

Bembry’s game appears perfectly molded for the perimeter of today’s NBA. His only struggle might be finding a sufficient barber in his new city. “You can’t just see random people you need someone who knows how to cut an afro, for sure,” Bembry says. He typically asks for a light trim every two weeks or so—before it mushrooms too big—although each shape up brings its share of anxiety. “I’m always in the mirror looking like, ‘Uh, what are you doing?’” Bembry says. The first time he peers at his reflection following draft night, Bembry will see the only St. Joe’s first round pick since Jameer Nelson looking back at him, his brother’s memory heavy in his heart.

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