It wasn’t long ago that only diehard NBA fans knew the name Kent Bazemore.
When he first entered the NBA, he was known as the guy who played sparingly for the Golden State Warriors, but always rooted on his teammates with entertaining bench celebrations. In fact, these became so popular that highlight reels were made and Bazemore’s moves were even added to NBA 2K. He was a fan favorite – the undrafted kid who always had a smile on his face and seemed thrilled to be living out his dream of being in the NBA.
Then, in February of 2014, the Warriors traded Bazemore the Los Angeles Lakers in exchange for Steve Blake. Suddenly, the swingman had an opportunity to take on a larger role. He took full advantage, averaging 13.1 points, 3.3 rebounds, 3.1 assists and 1.3 steals in 28 minutes. As entertaining as Bazemore was on the sideline with the Warriors, his stint with the Lakers made it clear that he belonged on the court.
However, Bazemore’s success with the Lakers was over the course of just 23 games, so some decision-makers around the NBA chalked up his production to a small sample size. However, the Atlanta Hawks believed in the charismatic Bazemore when he hit free agency following his time in Los Angeles, inking him to a two-year deal worth $4 million.
He continued to play at a very high level and made the Hawks look very smart. Last season, stepping in for the departed DeMarre Carroll, the 27-year-old averaged 11.6 points, 5.1 rebounds, 2.3 assists and 1.3 steals. He shot 44.1 percent from the field and 35.7 percent from three-point range (on 4.1 attempts per game). He emerged as a talented two-way player and an integral part of Atlanta’s balanced attack, filling the 3-and-D role that’s so valuable in today’s NBA.
In the playoffs, Bazemore averaged 11.9 points, 6.6 rebounds and 1.5 steals in the Hawks’ 10 games. During the team’s first-round series against the Boston Celtics, he had two outings in which he scored at least 20 points and he also did a very good job rebounding and defending. His best statistical performance of the playoffs came in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Semifinals against the Cleveland Cavaliers when he had 16 points, 12 rebounds, four assists and two steals.
These days, he’s filling the stat sheet as opposed to just waving a towel. But don’t get it twisted: Bazemore is still the teammate whom everyone loves.
“He’s a great basketball player, but an even better person,” said Indiana Pacers point guard Jeff Teague, who played with Bazemore in Atlanta. “He’s probably my favorite teammate that I’ve played with.”
“Kent was a great teammate in Atlanta,” said Phoenix Suns guard John Jenkins, who played with Bazemore in Atlanta. “He has a very lively personality that is contagious and perfect for a locker room. He has God-given tools that allow him to be a tough defender, but now you have to respect him on the offensive end of the floor too. He has a great story for a guy that went undrafted.”
What Bazemore brings to Atlanta – both on the court and as a great locker-room presence – can’t always be quantified with traditional stats. However, a deeper look at some of his advanced numbers does give an indication of how effective he was last season. According to Basketball Reference, Bazemore ranked 13th among qualified NBA players in Defensive Rating (100) and 16th among players in Defensive Win Shares (3.8). He averaged 2.6 deflections per game in the postseason, which ranked 15th among all individuals in the playoffs. Opponents who were being guarded by Bazemore shot 41.6 percent from the field, as opposed to shooting an average of 44.5 percent on the season when guarded by someone else.
A big reason for the Hawks’ success was their defense, and Bazemore was a crucial part of that (the only Hawk with a higher Defensive Rating was forward Paul Millsap). When teams played against Atlanta, their field goal percentage would drop by an average of 1.8 percent, which ranked first in the NBA. Also, the Hawks were second in the NBA in Defensive Rating (allowing only 98.8 points per 100 possessions, which trailed only the San Antonio Spurs).
Because Bazemore had a career year and displayed his expanded game, he received a nice raise this summer. He was a highly coveted free agent on July 1. In fact, the Houston Rockets met him as soon as free agency got underway, bringing owner Les Alexander, superstar James Harden and legends like Hakeem Olajuwon and Clyde Drexler to their pitch meeting as they tried to persuade him to leave Atlanta. However, even with the Rockets rolling out the red carpet, Bazemore ultimately decided to re-sign with the Hawks on a four-year deal worth $70 million. Oh, and July 1 (when he agreed to the contract terms with Atlanta) is his birthday, as if he needed any more reason to celebrate!
According to our salary cap guru Eric Pincus, Bazemore made $5,262,476 during the first four years of his NBA career combined. Next season alone he will triple that number, set to earn $15,730,338 (making him the third-highest-paid player on the Hawks’ roster). In the 2017-18 season, he’ll make $16,910,113. The following year, he’ll earn $18,089,887. He has a player option for the 2019-20 campaign, but he could make $19,269,662.
It’s safe to say that the days of Bazemore being undervalued and overlooked are in the past.
This was evident when it came time for the media to select their annual award winners. Bazemore received three All-Defensive Team votes as well as two votes in the NBA’s Most Improved Player race.
Basketball Insiders caught up with Bazemore to discuss his free agency decision, his meeting with the Rockets, the huge strides he made in recent years, his expectations for next season, the Hawks’ addition of Dwight Howard and more:
Alex Kennedy: You decided to re-sign with the Atlanta Hawks after receiving interest from several teams. What factored in to that decision?
Kent Bazemore: “I had made it clear all season that I wanted to return. Once you go through a season like this last one, a career year where you’re with the organization and coach and team for a second straight year, it’s hard to leave. My ceiling is super high here because I’m comfortable. I think being comfortable in your surroundings is important to becoming the best person and player that you can be. That weighed heavily in my decision. My fiancée loves it here too. Happy wife, happy life, right? (laughs) With other teams, there were a lot of uncertainties. For example, some were in the rebuilding stage. I didn’t want to leave a situation that I know a lot about for a situation with uncertainties. This is the place where I feel like I can grow the most, be close to home and develop my brand. I think having a brand in this league is really important because it helps catapult you in certain situations. The city of Atlanta has really embraced me. It’s been a perfect fit from the get-go.”
Kennedy: Just a few years ago, you were more known for your bench antics with the Golden State Warriors than your on-court contributions. Now, you’re one of the better two-way players in the NBA and you have an organization like the Houston Rockets bringing out owner Les Alexander, James Harden, Hakeem Olajuwon, Clyde Drexler and others to pitch to you. Is it a bit surreal how much has changed in just a few years?
Bazemore: “It is surreal. You walk into the room and there’s Hakeem Olajuwon, Clyde Drexler, James Harden, the owner and the assistant GM. It was a lot. They gave me this iPad with the presentation, and it was a very strong presentation. They did it in my backyard, so I was still home, still in my element, still in Atlanta. I made up my mind that I wanted to stay here with the Hawks. They tried to persuade me otherwise by breaking through that wall and trying to change my mind. And they almost did, I have to give them credit. Their presentation was impressive, with the moves they want to make. Also, I had already played under [head coach] Mike D’Antoni, so that played a factor as well. But at the end of the day, there were a lot of uncertainties. I would’ve been leaving a solid situation to go to Houston and play with James Harden, who is a great player, but one thing I want to do more this year is play with the ball in my hands. I understand that the Rockets are James’ team, so I thought the best thing for me was to stay here, where I can blossom. Not that I couldn’t have done it there, but I just think I have a better chance to do it here.”
Kennedy: That leads to my next question. In your opinion, how much more room to you have to grow? How much untapped potential do you feel you still have?
Bazemore: “Oh man, a ton. There’s not anyone on this planet who criticizes me more than myself. I think this contract has definitely motivated me to be a lot better. There are still levels to go – be an All-Star, be a superstar, MVP talk. That may seem farfetched, but I think at this rate, anything that I say can very well happen. Looking at how far I’ve come over the last few years, I think anything is obtainable. I know a lot of guys get a pay check and then relax, but I’m not going to be that guy. I’ve just been so motivated since signing a few weeks ago. I’m ready to get back out there and play. I know what I have to do to reach my projections and be where I want to be when I leave this game.”
Kennedy: The Hawks have made some significant changes this summer. You added Dwight Howard to the roster, but also lost players like Al Horford and Jeff Teague. What are your thoughts on the offseason as a whole?
Bazemore: “I think obviously losing Al and Jeff – two All-Stars – is a blow, but from an organization standpoint, I know they were looking to head in a new direction. Jeff and I had been here the longest out of everybody on the team, but they felt it was time to make a change. They’re going with a younger point guard, Dennis Schroder, who is defensive-oriented. They brought in Dwight Howard, who is one of the most dominant centers of all-time and poised for a breakout year. He seems super hungry. I’ve chatted with him a few times and he seems like he’s ready to get after it. It’s a situation for him where, unlike in L.A. and unlike in Houston, this is going to be his team. We’ll work off of him. We understand that he’s been to the NBA Finals and played on some great teams. We’re looking for him to be a leader for us, and I think he can do it. Him coming back home and being comfortable here, I think that makes a world of a difference. Then, of course, we have Paul Millsap, who is really special and does what he does on a nightly basis. He’s so consistent. We have some rookies who I’m really excited about; Taurean Prince is a big body and DeAndre Bembry is a play-maker with some good size. Then we have guys like Tim Hardaway Jr. and, of course, Jarrett Jack, who is one of the most vocal leaders in the entire league. He’s someone who I learned a lot of my leadership skills from back when we played together in Golden State. I could go on and on about this team. We have a good team all around – a solid mix of young guys and veterans – so it’s going to be a good year.”
Kennedy: Last year, most people felt that the Eastern Conference was pretty wide open after the Cleveland Cavaliers. Do you think you guys have a shot at being one of those top teams in the East?
Bazemore: “Yeah, definitely. Cleveland is a great team and what they did last year was amazing, beating a team that many people thought would walk away with the regular season and the postseason. You have to give a ton of credit to them because they’ve done a great job putting themselves in position to win and be successful. I think we took notes from losing to them eight straight games in the postseason. There’s definitely a fire lit under us for next season and we want to come back better than ever – individually and collectively as well. We’re taking steps in the right direction, adding Dwight Howard, adding Jarrett Jack, re-signing Kris Humphries and things like that. I think we’re moving in the right direction this year and that we’re poised to do some damage this season.”
Kennedy: What aspects of your games are you working on this offseason?
Bazemore: “I’m working on my body a ton. For me, getting stronger is super important. I’m just as athletic as any player in the league, but strength is important over an 82-game season. I’ve been working on my body a lot. I’m always expanding my knowledge of the game, watching a ton of film and understanding the game of basketball better. It’s one thing to just go out there to play, but it’s another to know exactly what you’re doing. It’s a game of chess, and I’m working on setting up players, setting up plays, making sure I’m in the right position on defense and those kind of small details. I’m always fine tuning those things. I think that will make me a much more solid player, and that way I’m not out of position on defense or gambling or things like that. I think I took a step in the right direction last year in terms of being solid, but there’s always room for improvement. I’m continuing to work on my jump shot too. I made a minor change at the beginning of the summer, so I think you should see my percentages go up next season. I’m also working on some more stuff off the dribble. It’s going to be a good year for me. With Dwight rolling to rim, I think our pick-and-roll is going to be really special and I’m looking forward to that as well.”
Kennedy: You’re very active in the community and have a lot of things going on right now with your foundation. What are some of the initiatives you are working on at the moment?
Bazemore: “I have three areas that I’m targeting right now. First is back home where I grew up in Bertie County, NC. Then, I have some things in Norfolk, VA, where I went to college. And here in Atlanta, I’m starting to plant some seeds and my foundation’s home base will be here in Atlanta. It’s a very saturated area with a ton of opportunities to do things. It’ll run out of Atlanta and trickle down to everywhere else. Ultimately, I want to start an academy, so right now I’m doing things in education like working with Boys and Girls Clubs, working with foster homes, working with basketball camps and things like that. We have a lot on our plate and some really big goals for the foundation. It’s something that I want to continue to do long after I retire, so I’m going to be involved in this for a very long time. I always wanted to get into philanthropy and I think this is a great start with my foundation. I want to turn this into something that’s very special.”
Kennedy: This question was submitted on Twitter by @HollywoodHeat. Kent, you have a lot of friends around the NBA and you’re obviously a charismatic guy. It’s well documented that you played a role in Stephen Curry joining Under Armour, so you clearly have some recruiting talent. Do you envision yourself being a recruiter of free agents for Atlanta moving forward?
Bazemore: “Oh yeah, most definitely. I think next summer, I’ll be sitting in every meeting. I think it’s a strong gesture when a team brings one of their leaders to a meeting because they can weigh in and tell the player how they can fit. In my Rockets meeting, having James Harden there really meant a lot and helped a lot.
“With Kevin Durant, you had all of the top Warriors players there recruiting him and answering questions. Damian Lillard [was involved] in recruiting this summer, and I think Damian is one of the most underappreciated players in the league on and off the court. He deserves more credit for everything he does. Young players should look up to him, with the way he approaches the game, how team-oriented he is and how he is always focused on a greater cause than himself. He’s definitely a guy who I’ve been eyeing and watching what he does to learn from him.
“For some reason, certain guys have a lot of pride or a big ego so they don’t want to show up to a free-agent meeting to recruit a guy to come play with them. But that just creates animosity. As soon as we signed Dwight Howard and Jarrett Jack, I sent them a text because I wanted to talk to them and start our relationship out on the right foot. That way when we’re in training camp or see each other in the gym, we’ve already talked and it’s not our first conversation. I’ll definitely be a recruiter in the future. I think I have a natural connection with people.”
For more exclusive interviews by Alex Kennedy (with players such as Indiana’s Jeff Teague, New York’s Courtney Lee, Oklahoma City’s Victor Oladipo, Sacramento’ Garrett Temple, Portland’s Moe Harkless and more), click here.
Make sure to follow Basketball Insiders on Twitter at @BBallInsiders.