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NBA PM: Bazemore Playing Best Basketball of Career

Kent Bazemore has stepped up since taking on a bigger role with the Atlanta Hawks this season.

Cody Taylor

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Kent Bazemore is Playing the Best Basketball of his Career

Each year, a number of NBA players take that next step in their development to elevate their game to the next level. These players typically see a spike in playing time, which helps produce bigger numbers.

Injuries sometimes play a factor in earning a bigger role, while other times that “next man up” mantra sets in after the departure of a key player. Regardless of the situation, there always seems to be a guy that plays his way into a meaningful role with a team.

For the Atlanta Hawks this season, that player seems to be fourth-year forward Kent Bazemore. It seems the departure of DeMarre Carroll has opened up a hole in the lineup for Bazemore. He’s in his second season in a Hawks uniform, and he has taken his increased role and made the most out of it.

He’s a similar player to Carroll. They are similar in size and both have developed into excellent defenders. They both like being tasked with guarding the opposing team’s best player and making life difficult for them on the court.

Carroll was the starter last season for the Hawks, which didn’t leave much playing time for Bazemore. He appeared in 75 games last season, but averaged just under 18 minutes per game. He chipped in 5.2 points, three rebounds and one assist per game, but clearly didn’t have a huge role with the team. It seems as though Bazemore stood to benefit the most with Carroll opting to sign with the Toronto Raptors over the offseason.

Many wondered how the loss of Carroll would impact the Hawks. After all, this was a team that won 60 games last season and made it to the Eastern Conference Finals. They became such a successful team by having a stout defense that ranked inside the top 10 in efficiency.

So far, Bazemore has stepped up and helped ease the transition for the Hawks this season. He’s improved in every statistical category and is posting career-high numbers across the board. His points have increased from 5.2 to 12.8 per game, his rebounds have increased from three to 4.4 per game, his assists are up to 2.2 per game and his steals have doubled from 0.7 to 1.4 per game.

But the biggest improvement has come in his shooting. His 48 percent shooting from the field is up from 42.6 percent last season, and his 41 percent shooting from three-point range is also an improvement from 36.4 percent. He made 48 three-pointers during all of last season in 75 games, while he’s already knocked down 34 three-pointers in just 24 games this season.

“I’m just getting comfortable,” Bazemore told Basketball Insiders. “This is my fourth year in the league and I’ve been around a lot. I kind of know the grind of an 82-game season; I know I got to take care of my body. I know how to efficiently work out now. I don’t go into the gym and just go balls to the wall a lot of the time. I know how to reserve a little bit of gas in the tank.”

While he wants to be known as a great defender, Bazemore also wants to become a better all-around player. He has always been a player that has brought a ton of energy and effort on the defensive end, but he wants that to also translate to the other side of the ball as well. He worked over the summer to better his game offensively, and that work seems to be paying off as his shooting numbers indicate.

“I came here for my defense and that’s what I’m still going to hang my hat on,” Bazemore said. “[But] I worked on my game a lot. I worked on making shots. My overall confidence is just night and day from last season. It’s my second year here so I’ve been around and the guys know me and I know the guys. I can go out and make the play now within myself; they also encourage that. You gotta pay your dues first and everything else will happen for you.”

However, it hasn’t been all on Bazemore this season. He was quick to credit his teammates for giving him the chance to be as good as he’s been. Atlanta has several veteran players who have all been around for at least eight seasons, including Al Horford, Kyle Korver, Paul Millsap and Thabo Sefolosha. The veterans on the team have been a big part of the learning process for Bazemore. They’re also players that demand so much attention that Bazemore often benefits from the easy looks he’s able to get.

“I tell people all of the time – it’s me and four All-Stars,” Bazemore said. “I’m the last guy [teams] are probably worried about; they take so much of the attention. I have the easy job most of the time – just rise up and knock a shot down here and there. They do a good job of keeping me up to speed. Any timeout, they will pull me aside and tell me to do this and do that. They’re very vocal. All of those guys are leaders and they’ve embraced me into the starting role and made it so much easier.”

Last season, the Hawks finished seventh in defensive efficiency after giving up 100.7 points per 100 possessions. This season, much hasn’t changed defensively as the team is giving up 100.9 points per 100 possessions, but are ranked 13th. For the time being, it looks as though the Hawks found their replacement for Carroll in Bazemore.

While Bazemore has improved across the board this season, it doesn’t seem like he’s receiving much hype in the Most Improved Player race. Although it’s still early in the season to be discussing the awards races, players like Paul George, C.J. McCollum, Kawhi Leonard and Reggie Jackson have dominated the early conversations, with no talk surrounding Bazemore. Despite getting no love thus far, it doesn’t seem to be hurting Bazemore that much. He’s squarely focused on improving as much as he can and helping the team win.

His success this season has come at perhaps the best time of his career as he’s set to become an unrestricted free agent this offseason. Bazemore currently ranks inside the top 30 in the league in field-goal percentage (30th), three-point percentage (19th) and steals (30th). With the salary cap expected to jump to the $90 million range, it’s a good time to be a free agent in the NBA.

Among small forwards, he ranks seventh in field-goal percentage, eighth in three-point shooting and ninth in steals. Considering that Carroll earned himself a four-year deal worth $60 million from the Raptors for posting similar numbers last year, it’s safe to say that Bazemore is outplaying the two-year, $4 million deal he signed back in 2014.

“We had a very good run last year,” Bazemore said. “My focus is getting there and I think everything else will take care of itself. It’s the guys that try to look ahead that just stumble on their way there. I’m going to just show up everyday and do what I do and everything else will take care of itself.”

Paul Millsap was Impressed by Orlando’s Free Agent Pitch

Over the offseason, Paul Millsap was at the top of the Orlando Magic’s free agent wishlist. He was the first player the team met with once the free agency period opened at 12:01 a.m. on July 1.

The Magic ultimately offered Millsap a maximum contract, worth $80 million over four years. At the time, it was thought to be impressive that the Magic even got a meeting with Millsap considering he was one of the top names available during free agency and the Magic were coming off of a 25-win season.

Sunday was the first time the two teams played since that meeting in Atlanta occurred, and it was a meeting that left Millsap impressed.

“I was their first priority, and everything about their team was looking good at the time,” Millsap said. “It intrigued me. The presentation was great.”

Of course, Millsap eventually would re-sign with the Hawks, where he said he was most comfortable playing.

“I kind of knew where I wanted to be,” Millsap said. “I’d grown really fond of Atlanta and the teammates and the coaching staff. I felt like we’ve built something special thus far, and I felt like we can continue to grow.

“Weighing my options and seeing what’s out there — you have to do that. As a player, you have to see what’s out there. But, at the end of the day, I knew Atlanta was my home and it’s where I wanted to be.”

Millsap proved why he was so valuable on Sunday, as he recorded 13 points, 13 rebounds, three assists, two steals and two blocks in 35 minutes for the Hawks.

Cody Taylor is an NBA writer in his fourth season with Basketball Insiders, covering the NBA and NCAA out of Orlando and Miami.

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NBA Daily: Luguentz Dort – A Different Kind of Point Guard

Shane Rhodes

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The point guard position is a clearly-defined one – perhaps the most defined – in the modern NBA.

At the one, you are either an elite shooter (both inside and on the perimeter), ala Stephen Curry, Kyrie Irving and Damian Lillard, an elite passer, ala Chris Paul, Ben Simmons and Russell Westbrook, or some combination of the two.

Luguentz Dort doesn’t exactly fit that bill.

The 20-year-old combo-guard out of Arizona State University didn’t shoot the competition out of the gym – Dort managed a field goal percentage of just 40.5 and hit on a meager 30.7 percent from downtown. And he wasn’t exactly the flashiest passer, as he averaged just 2.3 assists per game in his lone season with the Sun Devils.

He’s different. But, according to Dort, he has what it takes to run the point at the next level.

“I know that I can become a really good leader on the court and create for my teammates,” Dort said at the 2019 NBA Draft Combine.

Confidence and an “I-will-outwork-you” competitive attitude are at the center of Dort and his game. Those two aspects drive the engine that has made Dort one of the more intriguing prospects in the back end of the first round. He may not be the most talented player in this class, but Dort is hyper-competitive and can out-hustle anyone on any given night.

“When I play,” Dort said, “I’m really going at people to let them know it’s not going to be easy.”

There is a hunger in Dort – a desire to win that is evidenced in his game. An aggressor on both offense and defense, Dort’s motor is always going. His primary selling point is his defensive ability; built like an NFL defensive end, Dort can bring energy and effort to any defense. He has more than enough speed to stick with smaller guards on the perimeter and more than enough strength to bump with bigger forwards in the paint.

Dort has also shown a knack for jumping passing lanes to either deflect passes or outright steal the ball; Dort was fourth in the Pac-12 as he averaged 1.5 steals per game and 1.9 per 40 minutes.

Dort has made it a point to put that defensive ability and intensity on full display for potential suitors. At the Combine, Dort said he wanted to show teams “how tough I play on defense” and “how hard I play and the type of competitor I am.”

Offensively, Dort is an impeccable cutter. At Arizona State, Dort averaged 1.289 points per possession on cuts, according to Synergy Sports. When he goes to the rim, Dort used his size and power to his advantage in order to get to the basket and either drop it in the bucket or draw a foul. He isn’t Irving with the ball in his hands, but Dort can make a move with the ball to create space as well.

Dort isn’t a superb passer, but he has a solid vision and can make, and often made while at Arizona State, the right pass as well.

But can Dort overcome the inconsistencies that plagued him at Arizona State? Dort was, at times, reckless with the ball in his hands. Whether he drove into a crowd just to throw up an ill-fated shot attempt or forced an errant pass, Dort’s decision-making must improve. His shooting is suspect and his touch around the rim – two skills critical to the modern point guard – weren’t exactly up to snuff either.

There were lapses on the defensive end as well. Sometimes Dort would fall asleep off the ball or he would be too aggressive one-on-one. If he is too handsy or unaware, NBA veterans will take advantage of every chance they get against him.

But, according to Dort, he has worked on those issues.

“My decision making got a lot better,” Dort said. “My shot, my free throws, everything. I really worked on all that this season.”

But in order to truly make an impact at the next level, he’ll have to continue to work and refine those skills further.

More work has never been an issue for Dort. However raw he may appear, he has the look of and the work-ethic required of NBA-caliber talent. Dort’s ultimate goal for the Combine, other than draw interest from NBA teams, was simple: “learn about everything, get feedback and go back to Arizona and continue to work on my game.” Whether or not teams view him as a point guard, shooting guard or something else entirely is a matter for debate, but, standing at just over 6-foot-4, 222 pounds with a 6-foot-8 wingspan and high motor, Dort has the versatility and ability to stick at, and is willing to play, a variety of different spots on the floor.

“I want to play any position a team would want me to play,” Dort said.

He may not be the prototypical point guard, but with that kind of willing, team-first attitude, Dort, at some point or another, is almost certain to make it to and have an impact at the next level.

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NBA Daily: Brandon Clarke Working From The Ground Up

Because of the unusual path he’s taken to get here, Brandon Clarke has established himself as one of the more unique prospects in the 2019 NBA Draft, writes Matt John.

Matt John

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When the draft time comes along, teams who have the higher picks usually look for guys who have the highest ceiling. Because of this, they usually decide to take players on the younger side because they believe those who have less experience have more room to improve.

This puts Brandon Clarke at a slight disadvantage. Clarke is 22 years old – and will be 23 when training camp rolls around – and only just recently came onto the scene after an excellent performance for Gonzaga in March Madness this season.

Competing for scouts’ attention against those who are younger and/or deemed better prospects than him would be quite the challenge, but because of what he’s been through, said challenge didn’t seem to faze him one bit at the combine.

“It was a different path for me,” Clarke said. “ I’m 22 and there are some guys here that are only 18 years old. With that being said, I’m still here.”

The Canadian native has clearly had to pay his dues to get to where he is. Clarke originally played for San Jose State, a school that had only been to the NCAA Tournament three times in its program’s history – the most recent entry being 1996 – whose last alum to play in the NBA was Tariq Abdul-Wahad. Props to you if you know who that is!

Playing under a program that didn’t exactly boast the best reputation wasn’t exactly ideal for Clarke. In fact, according to him, it was disheartening at times.

“There were definitely times that I felt down,” Clarke said. “When I first went there, I was kind of freaking out because I was going to a team that had only won two or three games prior to me getting there.”

No tournament bids came from Brandon’s efforts, but the Spartans saw a spike in their win total in the two seasons he played there. The team went from two wins to nine in his freshman year, then went from nine wins to fourteen his sophomore year. Clarke’s performance definitely had a fair amount to do with San Jose State’s higher success rate, but the man praised the program for the opportunity it gave him.

“We did some really big things for that college so I’m really grateful for the stuff I could do for them,” Clarke said.

After spending two years at SJS, Clarke then transferred to Gonzaga where he redshirted for a year before getting himself back on the court. When he did, he put himself on the map.

Clarke dominated in his lone year with the Bulldogs, averaging 16.9 points and 8.6 rebounds – including 3.1 offensive boards – as well as 3.1 blocks and 1.2 steals per game. The man clearly established himself as a high-energy small-ball center at 6-foot-8 ¼ inches, and it paved the way for Gonzaga to get a one-seed in the NCAA Tournament and go all the way to the Elite Eight.

Brandon loved the experience with the Bulldogs, both for the opportunity they gave him and for what he was able to do for them on the court.

“It was a great year,” Clarke said. “I got to play with some of the best players in the country… It was everything that I ever dreamed of. I’m going to miss it a lot. From a personal standpoint, I was just really blessed that I was able to block shots… I felt that I was really efficient too and I really helped us on the offensive end taking smart shots.”

Both his age and the small sample size, unfortunately, go hand in hand so that it’s hard to pinpoint where exactly Brandon Clarke will be taken in the draft. The latest Consensus Mock Draft from Basketball Insiders has all four contributors disagreeing where he will be selected, ranging from being picked as high ninth overall to as low as 21st.

Where he will get selected will all depend on who trusts what could be his greatest weakness – his shotty jumper.

In a league where spacing is so very crucial to consistent success, Clarke’s inability to space the floor hurts his stock. His free throw shooting at Gonzaga saw a drastic improvement from San Jose State, as he went from 57 percent to almost 70. That’s not as much of a liability but not much of a strength either. His three-point shooting in that time took a dive in that time, going from 33 percent to almost 27, which definitely does not help.

To be a hotter commodity at the draft, Clarke had to prove he could shoot the rock from anywhere, which is what he set to do at the combine.

“That is my biggest question mark,” Clarke said. “I’ve been working really hard on it. So I’m hoping that they can see that I can actually shoot it and that I have made lots of progress on it, and that they can trust me to get better at it.”

The journey that Clarke has been on to get to where he is had made him all the wiser as a player. With him expected to enter the NBA next season, he had a simple yet profound message to aspiring young ballers everywhere.

“Trust yourself. Trust your coaches. Trust everybody around you that you love… Make the best out of the situation that you are in.”

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NBA Daily: Nassir Little’s Climb Back up the Draft Boards

Nassir Little’s measurements and personality shined through at the Combine, leading many to believe he may be better suited for the NBA than he was for the NCAA, writes Drew Maresca.

Drew Maresca

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From highly-touted prospect to reserve player and back, Nassir Little’s path to the pros has been an unusual one.

Little was a McDonald’s All-American and five-star prospect. And yet, he didn’t start a single game in his lone season at North Carolina.

He demonstrated the ability to take over a game at times – averaging 19.5 points per game through UNC’s first two games in the NCAA tournament. He also broke the 18-point barrier in six games this past season. But he also scored in single digits in 18 of the Tar Heels’ 36 games, resulting in him being labeled inconsistent by many professional scouts.

Luckily for Little, his skillset is highly sought after by NBA personnel. He is a 6-foot-6, 220 pound forward. He averaged 9.8 points and 4.6 rebounds per game as UNC’s sixth man, demonstrating the versatility to switch between both forward positions fairly seamlessly.

And he very well may be one of the few players better suited for the modern NBA game than he was for the NCAA.

Little told reporters at the NBA combine that much of his struggles can be attributed to the hesitancy he developed in his own game through the lack of clarity provided to him by the North Carolina coaching staff.

“The coaching staff didn’t really understand what my role was, especially on offense,” said Little. “So it created a lot of hesitancy, which didn’t allow me to play like myself.”

But Little assured reporters that he’ll look more like the five-star recruit we saw when he was a senior at Orlando Christian Prep.

“Throughout the year I didn’t feel like I played like myself. The guy that people saw in high school is really who I am as a player,” Little said. “And that’s the guy that people will see at the next level.”

Not only does Little expect to be back to his old self, he sees greatness in his future.

“I feel like I am going to come in as, like, a second version of Kawhi Leonard and be that defensive guy,” Little said. “Later on in the years, add [additional] pieces to my game.”

And while a Leonard comparison represents a tall order, Little’s physical tools have fueled discussion about his defensive potential – which has resulted in his climb back up draft boards. Little measured in with a 7-foot-1 wingspan and posted an impressive 38.5-inch vertical jump (second amongst all 2019 participants), a 3.09-second shuttle run (third) and a 3.31-second ¾ court sprint (fourth) – all of which translates perfectly to the NBA.

While his physical prowess will certainly help him gain additional visibility throughout the draft process, Little claims to possess another attribute that everyone else in the draft might not necessarily have, too.

“A lot of guys talk about skill set, everyone’s in the gym working on their skillset. But me being able to bring energy day in and day out is something a lot of guys don’t do.”

To Little’s point, he projects extremely well as an energetic, defensive pest. He is an aggressive and physical defender who has drawn comparisons to guys like Marcus Smart and Gerald Wallace – both of whom are/were known for their high-energy play and dedication on the floor. While his athleticism and potential can open doors, his personality will ensure that teams fall in love with the 19-year old forward. Little came across as extremely likable and candid, which should factor into the overall process, especially when considering that other prospects with less personality project to be more challenging to work with. Moreover, the fact that he was named to the Academic All-ACC team speaks volumes to his discipline and dedication.

Little alluded to the fact that he already sat through interviews with 10 teams as of a week ago, including one with the San Antonio Spurs, which makes the Leonard comparison all the more intriguing.

“Each team has different needs,” Little said. “But they like my [ability] to score the basketball in a variety of ways and my defensive potential to guard multiple positions, they really like that. And my athleticism to be on the court and finish plays.”

If Little is lucky, he’ll be selected by the Spurs with the nineteenth pick. And if that happens, he would be wise to pay close attention to the advice given to him by Coach Gregg Popovich – and not only because he sees similarities between himself and former Popovich-favorite, Leonard. Coach Popovich has a long history of developing lesser known draft picks into borderline stars – Derrick White being the most recent example.

Considering Little’s physical tools, academic achievements and easy-going personality, he has everything one would need to have a long NBA career. Just how successful he ends up being is mostly up to him.

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