The Starter’s Guide to His NBA Roadmap
Without a GPS, 20-year-old Darius Bazley would be lost. In fact, he isn’t quite sure yet how to describe where his brand-new house is located in the Oklahoma City area. For the past 12 months, the only driving routes he learned by heart consist of trips to Chesapeke Energy Arena, the Thunder ION and to Will Rogers World Airport.
For many rookies, the chaotic nature of the 2019-20 season could have been more disorienting than the highways and shortcuts of an unfamiliar city. Bazley entered a team of half returners and half newcomers. After a 6-11 start, OKC ripped off a 34-13 record before the season stopped in its tracks on March 11 due to the global COVID-19 pandemic.
At the time, Bazley was injured and missed 11-straight games due to a bone bruise on his right knee that he suffered just before the All-Star Break. He was all geared up to start playing again soon to help the Thunder for the stretch run, then suddenly was forced to have nearly four months away from the game. It was a full NBA offseason, but one that lacked the traditional avenues to improve – access to a practice facility, voluntarily workouts with the entire team or random runs of five on five at a local gym. Still, Bazley made the most of it.
“It just gave me a lot of time to just really like focus on my body and tweak little things on my jump shot,” said Bazley. “So coming into (the re-start), I definitely had a little bit more confidence and I was a lot more like settled in.”
Getting stronger and growing in confidence throughout the season.@BazleyDarius joins the crew on the Thunder Basketball Universe Podcast— OKC THUNDER (@okcthunder) September 24, 2020
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Throughout it all, both on and off the court during the 2019-20 season, the precocious Bazley’s compass led him straight and true. He had help for sure; the Thunder organization provides quite the North Star from which rookies can orient themselves from and begin their journey.
Bazley’s first year was remarkable in terms of improvement and maturation. Last July, he was in the Thunder ION trying to do his own laundry, not wanting to inconvenience Thunder staff dedicated to that task. Now, with 61 NBA games under his belt, the kid who skipped a year of organized basketball between high school and the pros has an auspicious start towards building his NBA resume.
With 9 starts and averages of 5.6 points and 4.0 rebounds with splits of 39.4 percent shooting and 34.8 percent from three-point range, Bazley’s regular season stats aren’t other-worldly. In the Thunder’s eight seeding games in August, however, Bazley’s production skyrocketed to 13.0 points, 6.3 rebounds and 1.5 assists with 46.3 percent shooting from behind the arc. In the playoffs, Bazley continued to hold his own, averaging 6.6 points and 6.7 rebounds, the latter of which was first among rookies.
“The year has gone by pretty fast, since Summer League to now,” said Bazley. “It's gone by so fast, but it's been a long time, and through that time, in my first year I've experienced so much. A little bit of everything. And everything means everything.”
Bazley also ranked in the top five in points and blocks among rookies in the 2019-20 postseason, as did his rookie teammate Luguentz Dort. Both youngsters came into the season without any expectations hanging over them but were fixtures in the Thunder’s rotation in the seven game playoff series against the Houston Rockets. Things moved so quickly for them that they’re still processing what they experienced together.
“We might have said something like, ‘things are crazy,’ but it hasn't been anything to where, we reflected and just sat down and talked about it, like two old men on the porch just reminiscing on their ‘back in the day’,” Bazley chuckled.
One thing both players did have time for was improving their bodies during the four-month hiatus. Coming back to Oklahoma City for a week and then on to the Orlando bubble, it was clear that Bazley had made a huge effort to get into the weight room and bulk up.
To begin his first season, Bazley was lithe, with sharp elbows and long strides. Unafraid of contact, Bazley stuck his nose in there against bigger players, but it was clear that his body would be able to absorb contact much better in the re-start.
“It does help a lot, the confidence just knowing that you can drive and take the bump,” said Bazley. “This is a grown man's league.”
That muscle showed itself on offense with his drives to the rim but most importantly showed up in his rebounding numbers, where he made his mark on the Thunder rookie playoff record books with his 6.7 boards per game.
With the ball in his hands in Orlando, Bazley showed off even more flair on offense than he did during the regular season. He ripped off three-straight 20-plus point performances in the seeding games and was a factor for the Thunder both from behind the arc and off the bounce, as he finished with both his right and left hands. Bazley revealed during the seeding games that he is ambidextrous. He does nearly everything with his right hand aside from shoot the basketball, making him a challenging cover for any defender trying to shade him one way or the other.
Over the past year, he’s worked with the Thunder coaching staff, and in particular assistant coach Brian Keefe, on how he attacks out of the triple-threat position. With his skill level and size (6-foot-9), Bazley can make any type of play when he has the ball on his hip, ready to dribble, pass or shoot. Like for most rookies though, there was a time during the regular season that the game moved too fast, and Bazley’s decisions were in slow motion.
“It just came to the point where I had to make a quicker decision,” said Bazley. “At first, I used to just kind of like wait and hold the ball and see what my defender was gonna do.”
After the re-start, it was clear to see that Bazley anticipated where defenders and teammates were going to be much earlier and didn’t need to hold onto the ball for an extra moment to survey the landscape. He embarrassed defenders with euro-steps through the lane. When they backed off to stop the drive, he hit them with a devastating step back three with a firm dribble that brimmed with confidence.
Though Bazley and the Thunder just barely missed out on advancing to the second round, the Cincinnati, OH native had plenty of experiences, and pride, to bring back to his family and friends after leaving the bubble.
During his rookie year, Bazley learned from Thunder veterans like Chris Paul to be a student of the game. The NBA Finals matchup between the Los Angeles Lakers and Miami Heat – two teams the Thunder beat in the eight seeding games – is now set in stone. Like Paul, Bazley never misses a minute of NBA hoops.
“I'm watching every game that comes on,” said Bazley.
As Bazley has soaked in the remainder of the NBA playoffs, he says he’s used his imagination. Thinking of himself in certain situations on the floor that he’s seeing on his screen, the youngster is looking ahead to when an even bigger role might be on his shoulders in situations with even higher stakes.
Clearly not shy when it comes to taking on responsibility, Bazley stepped up with his civic responsibilities this year too. For the first time since he’s been eligible (June 12, 2018), Bazley registered to vote, meaning that he’ll get to cast a ballot in the upcoming Nov. 3 state, local and national elections.
“When I was younger, I always thought that's what grownups do,” said Bazley. “And this is one of those marks for me where it's one of my grown-up marks.”
As a child and teenager, voting wasn’t necessarily on Bazley’s mind, but having a leader like Paul next to him in the Thunder locker room who helped make sure each American teammate was registered made a big difference in his consciousness.
“To whom much is given, much is required. I think everyone's vote does matter,” Bazley added. “There's definitely a responsibility there to vote.”
Bazley earned his teammates respect as a rookie by his play on the court and their friendship with his free-spirit nature off the floor. As a citizen, he’s taking all the right turns to start his journey as well.