Kent Bazemore of the Atlanta Hawks was recently a guest on the Basketball Insiders Podcast. Alex Kennedy and Michael Scotto interviewed Kent and the Q&A can be found below. To the listen to the podcast in its entirety, click the play button above.
Question: Kent, first off, thanks for joining us. It’s always good to talk with you. I just want to start by talking about this Atlanta Hawks team. Right now, you’re in the thick of things in the Eastern Conference. When you look at the conference from top to bottom, there’s such a jumble that the number four and the 12 seed are only separated by three to four games at this point. What’s your take, so far, on the Eastern Conference as a whole and where you guys fit in right now?
Bazemore: “First of all, thanks for having me. The Eastern Conference is tough. It’s early on in the year and there are a lot of teams without an injury, a lot of teams have a new look and are still trying to figure it out. Positioning is still prime, if you can steal games here and there you still give yourself a good chance of being in the thick of things. We did our work early in the season, getting off to a 9-2 start, then we hit a little rough patch there. But we’re coming off winning three straight, [including] a big home win against San Antonio a few nights ago. Things are starting to pick back up for us. We’re a very, very, very talented group, there’s a high ceiling for us. That’s the beauty of the season, there’s so much that happens within a season, not only within the season but within the first few months. You’ve got to stay the course, keep your head down and keep working.”
Question: You mentioned the overtime win over San Antonio. You guys have had some quality wins lately, beating the Spurs, the Pistons, the Knicks, the Thunder, the Raptors, the Bucks. How much does that help your confidence and do you guys feel like you’re starting to gain some momentum?
Bazemore: “Yeah, we know we’re a good team. It’s just doing it consistently, doing it on a consistent basis. That’s what the great teams in the NBA do, they go in every night and they’re all about their business. We’ve had some setbacks and had some tough losses – we got swept by the Timberwolves, we got swept by the Lakers. It hasn’t been all of those good games we want, we’ve slipped up. That’s just facts, that’s everything thrown in your face. We can be a really, really good team or we can be just a middle-of-the-pack team, it’s totally up to us. Coach [Mike Budenholzer] has done a great job of helping us weather the storm. He’s been uber positive, he’s been super supportive of certain guys and whatever they’ve been going through on the court. Hindsight being 20/20, starting the way we did and to go through that little rough patch, it’s been great for us. We’ve seen the best and the worst, and now we’re starting to really figure it out again. It’s kind of rewarding, to go through that stuff and refocus and start winning some games.”
Question: To reach that ceiling of what you guys could ultimately be, who or what is the ‘x-factor’ for the Atlanta Hawks to make that happen and for you guys to click on all cylinders?
Bazemore: “Honestly, I don’t think it’s one person, it’s the collective group. Obviously, having Dwight Howard has been amazing for us. It’s giving us a chance every night. The fact that he can rebound and really change the game really impacts the game a certain way. I think Paul Millsap is starting to pick up steam. I think Dennis Schroder is starting to really find his groove. Kyle [Korver] is starting to make shots. Tim Hardaway Jr. has been playing well. We’ve got [talented] guys, Mike Muscala, Kris Humphries, I can go all the way down the roster, but we’ve got a ton of guys that can really bring it and that’s what makes our team unique. You never know who it’s going to be [that steps up]. You can’t really go into a game, game planning around one person. The ball’s starting to move, a few nights ago we had like 29 assists, and that’s really, really good. There’s only a few teams in the league that pass the ball that well and win games. You see the Warriors, they have so many games over 30 assists, they’re very successful that way and that’s the way we want to play. It’s not really one person you can pin it on because no one has had a ‘great’ year to date on our team – everyone’s been up and down. Whatever we’ve done, it’s been done collectively. It’s not really a person, it’s a team thing.”
Question: Any time you have new starters, there’s always an adjustment period. When Michael interviewed you earlier in the season, he talked about the chemistry and adjustment. Obviously, with Dennis stepping into the starting lineup and Dwight joining the team and getting acclimated, you guys had to learn how to play with each other. Now, 30 games into the season, how comfortable are you guys together and where is the chemistry level at?
Bazmore: “I think we’re getting comfortable, the chemistry is starting to get there. Earlier in the year, we turned the ball over too much and that was from having the right intentions but not quite knowing, not quite getting it, not quite having that chemistry and synergy. Now, you see Dennis and Dwight connect on lobs. You see Dennis finding Thabo Sefolosha on slashes. Tim Hardaway Jr. running the floor, him and Malcolm Delaney have a good connection on the second unit, and Kyle Korver as well. There are certain plays that you see that we’re making now that we weren’t three or four weeks ago. It’s all starting to come together for us and, defensively, we’re getting our confidence back on that end of the floor, really making it tough for opposing teams and making it hard for them. Our defense has always been our staple; we put so much pressure on ourselves, struggling to score offensively or taking bad shots or whatever. Now we’re ironing things out. The pie is starting to bake, and that good old smell of sweet potato pie is in the air. (Laughs)”
Question: When you talk about you guys having a little bit of pressure, how about you individual pressure? You’re now a $70 million man. With that type of money comes different responsibilities, different pressure, different perception around the league about you. Have you felt, at all, since putting pen to paper on that contract, any added pressure for yourself and a different perception of yourself around the league from other players to this point?
Bazmore: “I put an enormous amount of pressure on myself, unknowingly. Going into my fifth year, I’ve been around a little bit, I wanted to take the leap as a player. Regardless of what I got paid, I want to be great. Having a deep playoff run and playing in the playoffs the last three seasons, I feel like it’s time for me to take the leap. This year, these first 30 games, I’ve been pressing a ton and it’s all coming from a good place, but that’s the growth, for me as a player. I’m really taking my time and continuing to be who I am.
“I’ve said this when I went back and got my jersey retired at Old Dominion. I didn’t have the best career in Old Dominion history. I didn’t average 25 and wasn’t an All-American in college. I was a great teammate, I was a great student, I was just a great, well-rounded person. And that, I think, plays a lot into why I was paid so much. I’m a great teammate, I work hard, I play the game the right way. It’s just getting back to who I am and not trying to be something I’m not, and it’s coming. As a competitor, you want to prove the naysayers wrong and shut people up, but there’s a way of going about it and it’s not going out and trying to score every basket or get every assist. It’s just being who you are, staying true to who you are, especially when things get rough. [That’s when] your character really starts to show and if you can stay close to your roots and get through the storm, you really start to shine.”
Question: Now you mentioned ODU and getting your jersey retired. If I were to tell that Kent Bazemore, who was a senior back at the time, a guy that, you and I will laugh about this, but that was a guy who couldn’t shoot the rust off of a gym and now you can shoot a little bit better and you really found a niche. Being a $70 million player, would you have foreseen that for yourself at that time?
Bazmore: “No. I honestly didn’t know what the future held. I always knew I wanted to play basketball, and everyone wants to go to the NBA. The percentages are minimal, it’s such a finite, small window for guys that really get the opportunity. I think it’s been 4,100 guys that have ever worn NBA jerseys or something like that. It’s crazy. It’s small and I was never on any draft boards. I had a great, great profile pic on MaxPreps in high school (laughs), but I was never a guy that was jumping off people’s radar. I always knew it was a long shot, but I can honestly say that my agent, the people around me, really helped me gain a belief, and my head coach at the time, Blaine Taylor, from Old Dominion, always preached about my length and athleticism and always said I had NBA athleticism. My agent, Austin Walton, is a beast at getting me opportunities. They helped me get my foot in the door and I just kept climbing. The first Summer League I played in, I got the record for blocks in a game or something like that. It’s, like I said, just being who I am, being the long length kid that couldn’t shoot the rust off the gym, but just continuing to work. I can honestly say, even with all the faith and believing in myself 110 percent, this is far and beyond anything I could ever have imagined, for sure.”
Question: Kent, one thing I’ve noticed when talking to guys who are fringe NBA players, whether it’s at Summer League or around the draft when guys go undrafted, a lot of guys point to you and say, ‘Look what Kent Bazemore did, he was undrafted, now he’s got a big contract. I can do the same thing.’ What does it mean to you to be an inspiration to so many of those guys? I think before, those guys would point to Wes Matthews or Jeremy Lin or guys like that, but now you’re the guy everyone points to and says, ‘If he can do it, I can follow in his footsteps.’ How cool is it to be an inspiration for so many players?
Bazmore: “It means a lot. One of my greatest goals I could achieve in life, one of the things I want to do in life, is to inspire. Being undrafted, being a fringe guy, it’s a different motivation. And even before that, if you come from a mid-major school, you probably weren’t that highly touted. We all have something to climb to, we all have that fire that’s burning and, not to take anything away from the McDonald’s All-Americans or the Jordan Brand All-Americans, not to take anything away from those guys because they’re special athletes too. But, when you aren’t [one of those guys], when you’re always looking at them, always looking up at them, looking at where they are on the boards or how people look at them, you get this fire inside of you. Once you step foot in the NBA, all that stuff goes out the window. Everything you’ve gotten, [you battled for]. Is he going to dive for this loose ball because he’s a first-rounder and he got guaranteed money for the next three or four years? For me, my rookie year, I had a $90,000 guaranteed contract to the Ukraine, which I knew nothing about, so there’s this discrepancy and want and desire and I think those guys, if they can really tap into that, they can blow the doors off anything. You really don’t have any expectations as a fringe guy, you may be the 15th man. They may bring you in and see what you can do, but if you go in and really, really work and try to bug your coaches and learn and work and train, just do all the right things, be a great teammate, then the sky’s the limit. I was blessed to have some of the best veterans ever my rookie year: Richard Jefferson, Jarrett Jack, Carl Landry, David Lee, Steph Curry and all of those guys. They really got behind me and helped me navigate and I listened, I was coachable. I love the fact that I can inspire and I really hope that I’m opening doors for a lot of people.”
Question: You mentioned that there were no expectations, initially. What’s it like going from being a guy that people don’t really expect a lot from and you can sneak up on people, to now being someone that teams game-plan for because of your production? How different is that, now that everyone knows what you can do?
Bazemore: “It’s tough, it’s hard. That’s why you applaud guys like the Kobes, Durants, Stephs, LeBrons. You applaud those guys because every night, for 82 games, Kobe Bryant for 20 seasons, they knew he was coming and they designed defenses for him, but he still overcame it. It’s tough. It’s gratifying that you go from being the 15th man to being on someone’s scouting report, but, at the same time, teams guard you different. It’s a challenge. You figure it out slowly, you bring your game every night and you see if you can find that crease. You’re patient, you’re just like that panther that’s waiting to pounce on your opportunity. It teaches you a lot of patience because, once you get this deep into the season, you may make changes at the All-Star break to the playbook but, right now you’re pretty much running the same things and teams have such advanced scouting, they know every play that comes up. They probably know what you’re going to run after a timeout and your rotation, so you really have to play a game within a game and keep teams honest and really evolve your mind. Basketball is becoming a game of chess, for me, it’s setting up a move two moves from now. That’s the long story, but it’s fun. It’s real fun.”
Question: Kent, one of the ways you had to make a niche for yourself in a way to get time off the bench from when you first started your career was with defense. Going back to college, you were a two-time CAA Defensive Player of the Year, you won a Lefty Driesell Award. Now that you’ve been in the league for awhile, from your perspective, who have been some of the toughest guys that you’ve had to guard?
Bazemore: “Manu Ginobili is tough. There’s constant movement, he never stops moving, and he’s left-handed. Night in and night out, I guard a ton of right-handed people. There’s two times a year where you’ve got a guy who rips the opposite direction and you think it would be easier, for me, guarding lefties, but he’s just so cerebral on the court and he passes it so well. He can shoot it, his pump fake [is great] and he has his game down pat and he plays it well to a T. Another guy would be DeMar DeRozan, who has excelled this year. He had a hot start and he’s been winning games for Toronto. James Harden, Russell Westbrook, those offensive juggernauts, the guys who are in the top 10 to 15 in scoring. They’re special. They’ve got guys that want to get them open, they’ve got coaches that run plays for them, and you’ve got to guard him and help your teammates, so it’s a tough task. Those are the guys that come to mind right now. Obviously, LeBron James, Kyrie Irving, the list goes on. But it’s fun, it’s a challenge. I go to sleep every night with a smile on my face knowing I get to guard some of the best players in the world. It’s gratifying.”
Question: Are you ever a trash talker?
Bazemore: “Not really. Talk’s cheap, especially in this game. These guys are so savvy at using your aggression against you, so you’ve got to talk to yourself. These guys get to the free throw line at such a crazy clip, you out there trash talking, he’s talking to you, he pump fakes, you jump, gets you in the air, he’s shooting free throws and you’ve got two fouls in the first five minutes and you sit on the bench. I learned that the hard way, so, not really. I’m just more about empowering my teammates and channeling the trash talking into positivity for my team.”
Question: So, Kent, now that you’ve done the ‘Bazemoring’ off the bench, you’ve done the ‘Bazegaze,’ what’s next after that?
Bazemore: “(Laughs) I don’t know. All of this stuff, it’s just natural, it just happens. ‘Bazemoring’ was something, actually, Charles Jenkins had a hand in it. We were sitting at the end of the bench in Detroit my rookie year and Steph and Klay were just making it rain from three and we had a front row seat to see it and I just started doing all of this crazy stuff. It’s nothing that I planned to do, it just happens. The ‘Bazegaze’ was originated from my college best friend. We’d be talking and if he thought you were lying, he’d give you that look like, ‘Come on bro.’ So, that’s where that came from. So, who knows what’s next, the people love it in Atlanta, so I’ll just keep trying to think of something else.”
Make sure to follow Basketball Insiders on Twitter at @BBallInsiders.