After the Toronto Raptors signed Alex Len yesterday, their roster is stock-full at 15 players. This likely means that Rondae Hollis-Jefferson will be looking for a new home in the coming weeks, but luckily, the Raptors have found their RHJ replacement in Deandre Bembry.
Every team needs a scrappy, hustle player who is willing to leave it all on the court for their team. Regardless of how many broken bones, bloody noses, or scrapes and scratches it costs, they will be the first guy diving on a loose ball, soaring for a rebound that may land them flat on their back, or defending the opposing team’s most talented scorer. The Toronto Raptors used to spend upwards of $60 million trying to recruit guys who fit this job description, and sometimes they wouldn’t even pan out (looking at you, DeMarre Carroll). Now, it seems that the Raptors have built an entire culture around that type of mentality.
Whether it’s Kyle Lowry’s bulldog attitude which sets the tone for the entire team, Pascal Siakam’s rather reckless play on the offensive end that somehow ends up in baskets more often than not, OG Anunoby’s willingness to guard the league’s most elite players from the time that he was a rookie, or Fred VanVleet’s grittiness to dig his nose right into bigger players’ personal space, the tone is set from the top.
And still, with all of these guys who are great defenders, and who fall in that same line of giving everything up for the team, the Raptors have become notorious for finding players whose lone skill is grit.
One doesn’t have to look much further than a guy like Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, who is on the skinny side of the spectrum when compared to his peers in the NBA, and doesn’t offer much ability on the offensive side of the basketball, but he has a talent for hard work. Not only does having one-dimensional hustle players like Rondae strengthen the team culture and amplify the Raptors mantra that hard work and hustle lies at the top of the totem pole, but it actually helps win basketball games too.
Of course, there were times that having Rondae on the floor felt like the Raptors were playing four against five offensively. His inability to stretch the floor made it harder for players like Serge Ibaka or Marc Gasol to work inside, and more difficult for the likes of Lowry, Siakam, VanVleet, and Norman Powell to drive the lane. The clutter and lack of spacing that Rondae brought just made it harder to get good shots, and that’s something that you have to accept with a guy like Hollis-Jefferson.
Nevertheless, Rondae’s lack of offense can’t discount from the amount of heart he brings. Most Raptors fans will remember the game against the Minnesota Timberwolves in early February, where Hollis-Jefferson started at centre, and despite conceding five inches of height and 31 pounds of muscle to Karl-Anthony Towns, he was able to shut down one of the best big men in the league.
In a game that Towns should have exploded to have a career night, Rondae held his own and limited Towns to 23 points on 5-13 shooting, while also chipping in 21 points himself, and leading the Raptors to a double-digit victory.
With yesterday’s signing of Alex Len, the Raptors roster for the 2020-2021 season appears to be full. Barring any trade that packages more players outgoing than incoming, or Terence Davis Jr. getting waived, it appears as though Rondae will not be a Raptor any longer. Surely, his services will be appreciated by another team lacking a defensive-minded wing, such as the Brooklyn Nets or the Timberwolves, so his time in the league is far from over.
The Raptors on the other hand have seemingly found their Rondae replacement. Whether RHJ played himself out of the Raptors’ price range, or Toronto was just looking to find a similar-caliber player who is less of an offensive liability, Masai Ujiri and Bobby Webster decided to ring Deandre Bembry’s phone, and bring him to Toronto on a two-year deal worth $4 million.
Bembry has spent his first four seasons in the NBA with the Atlanta Hawks, and after being drafted 21st overall in the 2016 Draft, he has never truly found his footing. Coming into the league, he was known as a defensive specialist with a little bit of ball handling and playmaking capacity, and scouts hoped that he would be able to develop his ability to score and become a real weapon on the offensive end of the floor. Unfortunately for him, that development never came.
When the Hawks decided to withhold Bembry’s qualifying offer, he became an unrestricted free agent, and with his hustle-first mentality, he’s likely a guy that the Raptors had high up on their list of targets. In Bembry, the Raptors find a player much like Hollis Jefferson with the ability to guard opponents on the court from one to four. Offensively however, Bembry provides a bit more of an ability to shoot the ball, and make plays for others.
As aforementioned, Bembry’s ability to handle the ball, drive, and find open teammates is far greater than that of Hollis-Jefferson’s. The Raptors don’t necessarily lack in those departments, especially with the new additions of Malachi Flynn and Jalen Harris, however essentially upgrading Hollis-Jefferson to a guy who can bring the same energy and effort defensively, while adding some flare on the other side of the ball is a plus.
Whether Bembry will earn any significant minutes next season remains to be seen. It likely depends on if the Raptors decide to make any more roster moves (which would most likely come from the trade market at this point) before the start of training camp. Even if they don’t though, having a player like Bembry is a plus for any team. Like I said earlier, he’s a guy that’s just good for the culture.