How the Hawks' Kent Bazemore salvaged his career

For all of the athleticism within Kent Bazemore and his wiry, 6-foot-5 frame, the process of development has taken nurturing and some prolonged steps. He was a self-made professional prospect, and then a cheerleader for the Golden State Warriors’ behind a glut of elite guards. He needed something more to supplement his athletic ability and his mind.

Kent Bazemore is enjoying his first season as a regular NBA starter. (AP)
Kent Bazemore is enjoying his first season as a regular NBA starter. (AP)

So, in early September, Bazemore took his turns inside a bowling alley in uptown Atlanta. Before his second season with the Hawks, he pondered DeMarre Carroll leaving the team for the Toronto Raptors in free agency, and how there was no certainty Atlanta would reclaim a top seed in the Eastern Conference.

Bazemore had dressed sharply for a casual bowling session on a Saturday night and went over all topics regarding the Hawks: the Thabo Sefolosha case and his reemergence in training camp, the free-agent losses, the Atlanta coaching staff, the ego-less locker room. Most of all: How much a young guard needed to leave a rising power in the Bay Area, via trade to the Los Angeles Lakers, to find staying power in the NBA.

Bazemore’s free agency two years ago after a stint with the Lakers started with a call from Boston Celtics coach Brad Stevens, and it ended with him signing in Atlanta. The Hawks prepared for his arrival that summer with coach Mike Budenholzer awaiting at the team’s practice facility, laptop in hand. “You need help,” the coach told Bazemore. “We’re going to fix your jump shot.” Soon, Budenholzer put Hawks shooting coach Ben Sullivan on Bazemore to quicken his jumper’s delivery and mechanics and improve his balance. The first phase of the free-agency partnership had begun: Target the skills and the weaknesses and hone them all.

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“Selfishly, if I wanted to play 30 minutes a night and wanted a role in the NBA, I wouldn’t change anything: I needed to leave the Warriors,” Bazemore told The Vertical recently. “I looked at leaving Golden State as my chance to grow up. I was stuck behind Steph [Curry], behind Klay [Thompson] and Harrison [Barnes]. I was so young, man. I’ve grown so much, having the experience of playing in the playoffs, playing for a really competitive team. Coach Sullivan had me watching my shots before I came, and when we first met, he told me he was going to alter everything. I showed up every day and we broke it all the way down: shooting with three fingers, one-handed shooting, finding my balance.

“A couple years in, my confidence is up and I don’t mind shooting the ball from everywhere. I understand how to get a shot off or getting my feet set before the ball comes. I know how important that is now.”

It has always been about timing for Bazemore. Golden State’s front office lauded his upside out of Old Dominion in 2012, but the franchise never had a consistent opportunity for him, only NBA Development League assignments. Looking back, Bazemore says his trade from the Warriors in 2014 – to then-coach Mike D’Antoni’s Lakers – saved his earning potential. In 23 games and 15 starts for Los Angeles, Bazemore amassed some stats and confidence. Those two-and-a-half months in early 2014 had rescued him, leading to a two-year, $4 million deal with Atlanta.

“That season with the Lakers was a savior,” Bazemore told The Vertical. “Every time I see someone from the front office with Golden State and every time I see D’Antoni … I give them a big hug. D’Antoni allowed me to showcase myself. I was a guy at the end of the bench in Golden State and did well in the D-League, but that isn’t enough to get you a solidified job in the league.

“I don’t know where I’d be right now.”

Bazemore made the most of his chance with the Lakers. (NBAE/Getty Images)
Bazemore made the most of his chance with the Lakers. (NBAE/Getty Images)

Between that night bowling in Atlanta to now, Bazemore has been a case study for young NBA players, drafted or undrafted: Work diligently and translate your craft into the luck of opportunity and minutes. In his first season as a starter, Bazemore is averaging 11.9 points, 4.9 rebounds, 2.3 assists and 1.3 steals per game. He could command the most significant contract of his career as an unrestricted free agent in July in a market that has already started to intensify.

Budenholzer remembers Bazemore entering the Hawks’ facility two summers ago, a wide-eyed player whom the coach wanted so badly to instruct.

“There is only so much Kent could do before and after practice, in the summers, and now he is marrying up with opportunity,” Budenholzer told The Vertical. “All of the work and effort that he puts in individually, now he’s getting an opportunity with us to continue the development. Effort, activity, offensively improving. You want a player like Kent around.

“He has spent significant time working on his shooting form. From the day he got here, we have worked to improve and change his shot drastically. It’s amazing how much his technique has improved.”

These Hawks haven’t built a championship team at 31-27, but have a stable roster to compete for home-court advantage in the East. They’ll be proactive in attempting to re-sign Bazemore, but the franchise has decisions to make at point guard with Jeff Teague and Dennis Schroder, and in its effort to retain All-Star Al Horford in free agency.

“I want to win, period,” Bazemore told The Vertical. “For me, it’s more than just how much people pay. I look at state tax, cost of living. At the end of the day, I want to set myself up for when I retire, and I’m a forward thinker. I want to win at the end of the day. I can’t take a huge contract and win 17 games. That’s just not me.”

There was Stephen Curry on Monday night, draining a 3-pointer in the Warriors’ win over the Hawks and shimmying in front of Bazemore, who was seated on the bench. Those two could smile about it later. Within Bazemore, he believes: Curry and Thompson knew he needed to move on; he needed the Lakers’ opportunity and the Hawks’ system. For him, this NBA journey has been centered on timing and individual drive. The Warriors had provided a roadblock, the Lakers an opportunity and, now, the Hawks have given him the tutelage to improve his life.

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