Kent Bazemore: ‘Defense Is All I’ve Known’
In late July 2012, a month after all 30 teams passed on him in the Draft, Kent Bazemore stared at a one-way ticket to play professional basketball in the Ukraine – “way in the Ukraine,” to be exact – and uphill odds of making a Warriors roster with a surplus of players at his position.
With his NBA dream on life support, Bazemore, fueled by desire and desperation in Summer League, leaned on what he knew best and what he knew would differentiate him from hundreds of big-league hopefuls in Las Vegas.
Defense, defense and if all else fails, more defense.
“It’s all I've known, pretty much, growing up,” Bazemore said. “I was never on any high-scoring teams. In high school we scored, like, 45 points a night; college was low-to-mid 60s. So it was always a physical style of play, defensive, just stopping other teams. That was our focus every night. We were never really focused on offense. Just running good sets and moving the ball, and then defensively, is where I learned how to make an impact on the game.”
So during his NBA audition in Sin City, pressuring ball-handlers and disrupting their rhythm became his No. 1 and 2 priorities. Over and over again, he’d slide into the right spot at the right time to pick off a pass or deny a basket as a weak-side defender, shining like a diamond among a group of players who marginalized, if not negated, the less-glamorous end of the floor.
One night, it felt like the 6-foot-5 wing was everywhere, tallying 11 points, eight rebounds, two steals and a team-record seven blocked shots; another time, his 13 points, four boards and a last-minute drawn charge were instrumental in a win.
“I was just really grateful for the opportunity to have the logo on my chest, even though it was Summer League,” he said. “Not being drafted, just having the opportunity to prove that I belong was pretty much my focus.
“I grew up watching the Gary Paytons of the world, the Bruce Bowens, Shane Battiers, Tony Allens,” he continued. “Obviously, being (in Sacramento) now, growing up watching … the Kings back in the day, seeing the impact Doug Christie had on the game. Just guys who didn’t really care about having the ball. They understood how important it was to have a guy who stopped the other (team's) best player and made it tough on them.”
The Warriors saw enough athleticism and defensive potential to reward the Old Dominion alum with a contract. Soon, he'd learn that defense would not only be his calling card to cementing a roster spot, but that his gritty game would culminate into meaningful minutes and his knack for “doing the dirty work” would keep his services in high demand.
“Coming into the league, I think Kent really worked hard to establish himself as a good two-way player; a guy who can knock down shots and defend at a high level,” Kings forward Harrison Barnes, who played with Bazemore in parts of two seasons with the Warriors, told NBC Sports California.
In Golden State, too many guards ahead of him on the depth chart kept Bazemore’s playing time to only 4.4 minutes per night in 61 appearances as a rookie. He became more widely known for his overenthusiastic sideline celebrations – “Bazemoring” – than box-score output, while yo-yoing between Oakland and the Warriors’ G-League affiliate in Santa Cruz.
But Bazemore took his assignments to the minors seriously – in five games, he averaged 21.6 points, 7.6 rebounds and 4.4 steals – and shined in practices with the main club during his NBA call-ups. Away from the cameras, he’d study game film on nights he knew he wouldn’t see the court and picked the brains of his superstar teammates.
“There’s no secret why those guys are the best; it didn’t shock me why they turned out to be the best,” Bazemore said. “Beginning with my time in Golden State, Klay (Thompson), Steph (Curry) and Draymond (Green), how far those guys have come, the work that they put in, their attention to detail, how they love the game.”
Years later, those lessons would be further ingrained when he’d serve as an integral player on a 60-win, four-All-Star Hawks team in 2014-15.
“Just being around them every day, seeing how they approached every night, and understanding that no matter how you’re feeling, go out and give it your all,” he said. “That’s going to be pretty much all you can do at the end of the day.”
Since departing Oakland for Los Angeles midway through his second season, Bazemore, with an abundance of playing time, has flourished into the type of player that Golden State brass witnessed behind closed doors. Across six seasons, his per-36-minute averages have remained consistent year to year: 15 points, five rebounds, three assists and two steals.
Although his shooting percentages have hovered around League average, the 6-foot-5 wing has embraced the role he knows he’s suited for best: knocking down open corner threes and of course, playing his signature, lockdown perimeter defense.
Bazemore, equipped with a 7-foot wingspan, quick instincts and basketball savvy to bother opposing scorers and jump passing lanes, ranks No. 13 among 129 qualified shooting guards in Defensive Real Plus/Minus (1.53) in 2019-20, per ESPN.com. In three of the last five seasons, he placed in the 90th percentile or better in both steal and block rate at his position, according to Cleaning the Glass.
Bazemore has swiped at least one ball in a career-best 13 consecutive games – seven with the Kings – a streak that includes four games with double-digit steals.
Among guards, only the Spurs’ Derrick White and Sixers’ Matisse Thybulle have more multi-block games this season than Bazemore (six), who enjoys few plays more than the chase-down swat on an unsuspecting opponent. If an opposing player expects an easy, breakaway dunk with Bazemore gaining ground, he’d better think twice.
Even better in slow-mopic.twitter.com/zsYWYlH6MS
— Portland Trail Blazers (@trailblazers) October 29, 2019
Many times, his impact doesn’t show up on the traditional stat sheet, like when he attaches to opposing wings and keeps them off the scoreboard or fights for a loose ball between two defenders. Of all players with at least 1,000 minutes this season, Bazemore is tied with Clippers All-Star Kawhi Leonard for No. 5 in deflections per 36 minutes (4.1), and contests more shots (9.7) than all but five guards, per NBA.com.
With Bazemore on the floor, Portland’s defense allowed 7.0 fewer points per 100 possessions, a differential that ranks in the 93rd percentile, per Cleaning the Glass, and held opponents to a 50.2-percent effective field goal percentage (87th).
No. 26 kept his longstanding habit of active film watching, and as a result, he says, gained an intuitive understanding of player tendencies. When matched up against him, opponents are shooting 2.9 percent worse than their cumulative season averages, according to NBA.com.
“It’s about understanding who they are, what they like and your game plan,” he said. “Coaches do a great job nowadays of giving you a pretty thorough game plan and as long as you know where your guy is going to be, you kind of learn how to funnel that guy to the help (defense) and make it tough for them.”
If there’s a single highlight that can encapsulate the kind of disruptive, perpetually-hustling force Bazemore can be – erasing sure-two points, diving for loose balls, making game-saving plays – look no further than these 15 seconds. During that time, Bazemore stuffs a drive to the rim; prevents an offensive rebound; saves the ball from going out of bounds and collects it; kickstarts a fast break; and finally finds a teammate under the basket for a wide-open dunk.
In Sacramento, much like in his previous stops, he won’t be asked to do the bulk of the scoring, but Bazemore, a career 34.9-percent shooter from long range, helps space the floor. On the season, he’s connecting on 36.7 percent on catch-and-shoot three-pointers, and has knocked down 5-of-13 (38.5 percent) with the Kings.
Bazemore can also shoulder the offensive load as a secondary playmaker and get to the foul line, where he’s making close to 80 percent. Two years ago, he boasted an assist rate that put him in the 91st percentile among wings and finished in the 74th percentile or better in his previous four seasons.
As he continues to expand his offensive game, he understands his role, depending on the matchup, may dictate taking fewer shots or sacrificing personal statistics for the good of the team.
“The game has changed since I’ve been in the League,” Bazemore said. “Offensively, it’s become a game where you have to learn to create more for yourself, move without the ball and all those kinds of things. Those are things that I've tried to shore up. I just try to keep it to: see the ball go in a couple of times, play with energy, get a couple of layups here and there, knock down open threes, get to the free throw line. I try to keep it vanilla.”
The eighth-year veteran doesn’t reminisce on his humble beginning much anymore, but every once in a while, he remembers how terrified he felt as he packed his bags for Eastern Europe, and how insulted he became when ESPN ranked him No. 499 of 500 players before he played a regular-season game.
“It’s kind of been a blur … every day is a grind,” he said. “I have different responsibilities now, being a husband and a father. Every day is new. But anytime you get a chance to think back, it just kind of warms your heart to actually see how far you’ve come.”
Through his willingness to take a different approach, Bazemore has forged a lengthy, productive career few once believed was possible. Eight years in, he’s never lost sight of where he started or how far he still has to go.