Bazemore's Career Year Fueled By Health, Versatility

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Story by KL Chouinard
Twitter: @KLChouinard

Kent Bazemore doesn't give up easily. It's who he is, and it shows up in his play on the court. 

In the first half of Monday's win over the Timberwolves, Minnesota snatched a steal and sent Jeff Teague and Jimmy Butler out on the break in front of every Hawk. Undeterred, Bazemore gave chase, first dancing around a pseudo-screen from Butler and then soaring to thump Teague's layup attempt out of the air inches before it got to the rim. 

During the dead ball Bazemore said a few words that drew a smile from his old friend Teague.

"You've got to dunk that. I mean, you know that."  - Bazemore to former teammate Teague after blocking him from behind

Later in the game, with the Hawks nursing a one-point lead with a little more than a minute left, Bazemore made a nearly identical block on Teague. The Hawks grabbed the rebound and held on for the win.

Bazemore said chasedown blocks are the types of plays he might not have been able to make last season when he had to deal with a lingering right knee issue. This season, he said that the script has flipped. 

"It's definitely different health-wise," he said. "I'm just trusting my body, knowing I can go up and get it now. I've been flying around this year."

Bazemore isn't just averaging a career-high in blocks per game (0.72); he is also doing the same in points (12.8), assists (3.6), steals (1.7), three-point percentage (.379) and made threes (1.6 per game). He has made a huge impact defensively, too. He ranks 7th in the NBA in total steals (86), and he sits 8th among all shooting guards on ESPN's Defensive Real Plus-Minus index (+0.96). It is easy to say that Bazemore is having the best season of his career, and not much more difficult to say that he has been one of the most productive and consistent Hawks through the season's first 50 games. 

Let's take a look at Bazemore's season though the prism of the positions that he has played:

The '2' and the '3'

Since arriving in 2014, Bazemore's primary spot has been on the wing alternating between the shooting guard and small forward positions. In Head Coach Mike Budenholzer's offense, they function almost identically, so the biggest difference between the two jobs has come on the defensive end. 

This season, Bazemore and Taurean Prince have been the only two Hawks to play in all 50 games. With Prince holding down the starting small forward spot, Bazemore has thrived at shooting guard. He has enjoyed having Prince alongside him to guard the bigger wings, even though he still guards many of the bigger players when Prince rests. 

"It definitely makes a difference," Bazemore said. "The year after DeMarre (Carroll) left, it was my second year here, I played the 3. It just wore me out, giving up a couple of inches and a couple of pounds every night and banging, and doing all that. It's good to have another guy out there who can guard them. If need be, if coach brings in another smaller guard – like he'll play me with Malcolm (Delaney) and Dennis (Schröder) – then I can guard those guys. But on a nightly basis, it's good to have a guy out there who can carry that load."

Budenholzer likes the length that his team has defensively when both Prince and Bazemore are paired together.

"When you have Taurean and Kent at the 3 and the 2, you feel like you have great size at both positions," he said. "In the meat of the game, against backups or starters, Kent is going to shift down and play some or significant minutes at the 3." 

Taking the reins at the '1'

Bazemore has played more at point guard this season than he has at any point in his career. When Schröder missed a game due to injury in Oklahoma City, Bazemore made his first career start at point guard, tallying 11 points, 6 assists and 3 steals in a narrow defeat.

When Schröder returned and scored 33 points in a win the next night, I teased Bazemore.

"Do you think Dennis was super motivated tonight because he didn't want to lose his starting point guard job to you?"

Bazemore laughed before responding.

"It's definitely a tough job, but last night was fun," he said. "There's a difference between playing point guard and starting at point guard. I liked it. You're kind of controlling the game and playing chess out there and getting your guys in the right spots. When you call a play without Coach and you get a basket, it kind of makes you feel good."

While that game in Oklahoma City was Bazemore's only start at point guard this season, he has had the ball in his hands as a creator more this season than at any point in his career. The development has paid dividends, too. His 178 assists are a career high, even though the season is only 50 games old. 

Filling in as a big at the '4'

No one is going to mistake Bazemore for Karl Malone. He only stands 6-foot-5, and his lean-but-chiseled frame only weighs 201 pounds. In recent years, the Hawks have used small-ball lineups with wings like Carroll and Thabo Sefolosha at the power forward spot when they needed extra offensive potency. 

With a deep rotation of big men this season, the Hawks might not have used the small-ball tactic much, but when a December spate of injuries took Dewayne Dedmon, Luke Babbitt, Mike Muscala and John Collins out of the lineup, they didn't have much of a choice – and Bazemore stepped up to the challenge. 

"It's a learning curve," he said, "especially when you start going up and down (the court). You've got to understand where you're supposed to be. You have to be conscious of where the other big is."

Bazemore added that there's a hidden benefit to spending some time as a big man.

"It's helping me when I'm playing the guard position or Coach has me at point guard. My assist numbers have been up because I understand where everyone is going to be. I've made some pretty decent strides in that department as far as my assists go. I still have some games where I could tighten it up with the turnovers, but all-in-all my sixth year has been one where I've learned the most since I've been playing basketball. There has been a lot thrown at me, but it has been a great challenge."