A week has gone by since his world turned upside down. Kent Bazemore went from bench celebrator to Lakers starter to leading scorer. The smooth and bumpy ride that defines so much of sports was unimaginable ten days ago. But fortuity shifts in the NBA all of the time, from impossible to unbelievable to oh, really? How else to explain a player who averages two points in six minutes then is a starter for the Lakers and averages 17 points in 35 minutes. How to explain his 19 shots against Indiana or his lack of fear at the rim? How is it that the Warriors were not playing him except in garbage time? How is that he remained so confident even as he was rarely utilized? The long and short of it is Kent Bazemore is a second year player who for all intents and purposes is a rookie. He has played less than 700 minutes in his career. Kendall Marshall, also a second year player, has played sixteen hundred minutes. Fatigue is bound to set in as these next twenty five games unwind, a preponderance of resentment from his teammates already has. But Bazemore’s talent is unquestioned. After the loss in Memphis, Mike D’antoni said of him, “He’s so active on defense, he has a chance to be a really good player.”
Uninhibited, Bazemore plays off his talent like a guitar man strumming chords. He can beat his man off the dribble so he does. He can rise up and shoot over a defender so he does. He can get into the paint so he does. All of that is integral in development but there is another part of the game that is just as necessary and is often inconvenient. It is the inclusiveness of teammates and awareness of the situation, of time and place. It is the ability to read what the defense is allowing. This is where intelligence plays a part of what you will be as a player, where intellect is either expanded and nurtured or intellect is overestimated. To be blunt: stupid players have short careers, they never win.
Sometimes you forget this year was a skewed algorithm formula. Take unwanted players, insert them into an equation and wait for the results even as you know the results will give you a wrong answer and careers will be ruined. There will be closure. As much as it was an anomaly it was also a lie. These one dimensional, half hopeless sort of players are not what the Lakers history is built upon. As a rule the Lakers don’t do scorched earth. And yet here we are, the season of misery. Then Kent Bazemore arrived and shook it all up. After the loss in Memphis, Mike D’antoni said of Bazemore, “he has a bright future.”
As good as he has been in these past four games, where he is incomplete is with the pace of the game and with pacing himself as he takes advantage of opportunities. When he was a young player Kobe had to learn there was a responsibility attached to his talent. Sometimes you have to give less to get more. The “we game” over the “me game.” Russell Westbrook had to learn it too. Kyrie Irving is still learning it. All of this comes with experience. Bazemore is the Lakers best wing player, he has a willowy kind of game that is repetitive. Ironically enough, the benefit for him is that the Lakers are not a playoff team, not anywhere close to being a normal Lakers team or a good team. All this means is that he can just play and not worry about the consequences of his mistakes; he can play like a rookie and learn. The more he plays the more he will understand. But. The more he plays the more envy will come his way. Does he have the mental toughness for it?
Look at it this way. The majority of the backlash comes from players who won’t be on the roster next year which is its own irony. They suffered this entire season only to be discarded while Bazemore came in as an afterthought and will earn a contract offer. But the psyche of young players can be fragile; teammates can wreck confidence. Or not. The moment D’antoni made Bazemore the starter was the moment the bell began to toll. Wes Johnson was the human sacrifice. The number four pick in the 2010 draft was given a fresh start over the summer but all he has proven is that the scouts were right about him all along. He is not a good ball handler, not a good shooter, not a good finisher through contact, can dunk on a lob but misses everything else at the rim, gambles on defense, is not physical enough, is short of confidence and will. All that is true. But he has been here all season doing the best he can do, giving what he can even when much of that is mediocre. Chris Rock once remarked: we are a nation of C students. The Lakers wore that label proudly until Bazemore came and wrecked everything. Or settled everything.
He needs to improve in the passing game. He has good court vision and velocity on his passes but he has to remember it is not David Lee out there. It is Pau Gasol, thirty three years old and with little elevation. He is not going to bend over for a pass, you have to put the ball in the reach of his hands. Bazemore’s midrange is nice but he still hesitates the way Blake Griffin used to. One dribble, lose your defender, then shoot. Don’t think about it. The more he plays the more skillful or sneaky he will get at the rim to make sure his blow bys turn into three point opportunities. He contests shots and he plays defense so hard it seems exhausting. And he is loved by his coach. You get the sense that D’antoni sees this as a reward for being punished all season. For the next 25 games he gets to coach a player with offensive skill, a willing learner of the D’antoni offensive principles: move the ball or shoot the ball but do it in a way where you have affection for your teammates.
There are no downsides for Kent Bazemore even if certain Lakers are disgruntled. He was rescued. After his debut game he was anointed. He goes into the offseason as a buyer, someone who can pick and choose because in just a short amount of time he has proven the one thing an athlete has to prove after entering the league: I am a difference maker. This is not a casual encounter. Mitch Kupchak is convinced of it. Besides, this is something Mitch excels at, grabbing pieces and turning them into huge sums. He did it with Trevor Ariza and Jordan Hill and Earl Clark. Kent Bazemore is on a different level, he is a scorer and a defender and a playmaker. He finishes at the rim. After four games he is averaging 17 points. The same as Nick Young but Bazemore is shooting 45%, he takes high percentage shots, he gets to the line and maneuvers in traffic. It is understandable why Nick felt the need to come back even as he was injured. In such a short amount of time Bazemore was taking his place.
Every idea does not necessarily solve a problem; some do. The idea to recycle Steve Blake for talent and athleticism and then to mix it in with a group that for most of the year has struggled to compete on the NBA level was a leap of faith. Only one week has gone by and once again Mitch Kupchak looks like a genius. He was not winning with age and experience. Why not try out younger players for next year, see who can compete. Bazemore can. The question is how long will he compete for the Lakers?