As a youth, which was really not that long ago for the 20-year-old Thunder rookie, Darius Bazley went to the park by himself and shot with his right hand. He’s a natural righty, but he kept missing.
Talking to himself, coaching himself up as if trying to show himself how to shoot better, Bazley started shooting with his left hand and to his mild surprise, the ball started to drop. From then on, Bazley shot jumpers lefty but did everything else in his life with his right hand, including dunk.
It’s clear most of his opponents haven’t wizened up to the rookie’s ambidextrousness, because when defenders close out to Bazley on the perimeter, they’re giving him driving lanes to his right. Happily, Bazley is accepting those invitations to attack and so far in the re-start, he’s finished some nifty buckets around the hoop with the right hand while knocking down jumpers with his left.
On Sunday afternoon in the Thunder’s 121-103 seeding game victory over the Washington Wizards, Bazley set a career-high with 23 points on 8-of-13 shooting, including five made three-pointers, also the most in his young career. With that performance, Bazley became just the 7th rookie in OKC history to score 20-or-more points in a game and in the re-start, he’s averaging double digits in the scoring column.
“My confidence really just comes from my teammates and my coaches just putting that confidence in me,” said Bazley. “Knowing that they're confident in me and what I can do allows me to go out there and also be confident.”
Before he gets energy from his teammates, Bazley usually gives it. In fact, the ever-energetic Cincinnati-native first caught a rhythm while he was still on the bench and the Thunder’s first unit got rolling. Fellow frontcourt player Mike Muscala started at center in place of Steven Adams and Nerlens Noel, who were both late scratches with leg and ankle soreness respectively.
In the opening minutes of Sunday’s game, Muscala nailed a three then lined up another one from the top of the key, thanks to a drop-off pass by Chris Paul. Before the ball even reached its apex off of Muscala’s release, Bazley was getting loose on the sideline, dancing and celebrating the made three and immediate Wizards timeout.
That bucket made it 10-0 Thunder, and after that it was time for Bazley to join the action as the team’s second-unit center. Just a few weeks ago, Donovan said that at this point Bazley, still a rookie who didn’t play organized basketball last year, was firmly situated at power forward but that he projected to play multiple positions in future years. Today though, the 6-foot-8, 208-pound scrapper was banging down low with Washington’s Thomas Bryant (6-foot-11, 248) and Moritz Wagner (6-foot-11, 245) to pick up the assignment his team needed from him.
“I just appreciate the opportunity to be on the floor with my team and do what’s asked of me,” said Bazley.
Holding his own down low, Bazley moved his quick feet to stay in front of his man when on the ball and recovered quickly on pick and roll actions too. Despite being undersized among the true centers, Bazley racked up seven rebounds. At the beginning of the Thunder’s time in Orlando, Bazley filled in for Noel in practice, battling the 265-pound Adams. If you can hang in there against the Big Kiwi, you can handle whoever is thrown at you.
“Just doing what we go through in practice, sticking to our principles, guys just being in help and showing our length to maybe discourage a drive,” Bazley explained. “Just showing a crowd.”
After missing his first shot attempt, Bazley got going in Sunday’s game thanks to a nice drop-off pass in the secondary fast break by Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. Bazley lined up an easy knockdown three from the left wing that splashed home. The 23rd overall pick in the 2019 NBA Draft was not a prolific three-point shooter, particularly since he did an internship at New Balance and trained on his own between his senior year of high school and his initiation into the Thunder organization last July. But down in the bubble, Bazley has hit 41.6 percent of his threes (10-for-26) and has played at least 22 minutes in every game, with an uptick of 8 minutes per game more than his average during the year.
“It's been unbelievable,” Chris Paul said of Bazley’s maturation, before needling himself and his young friend. “Somebody showed me a tweet yesterday saying how 2005 was a special year because that was the year I got drafted, and it was the year that Baze started kindergarten.”
In addition to the defense, the shooting and the minutes, however, the biggest sign of Bazley’s long-term prospects is the way he’s able to confidently attack with the ball using either hand, particularly at his height. In the very first seeding game against Utah, Bazley attacked a double team on the left side of the floor that included two-time Defensive Player of the Year Rudy Gobert. He deftly scored around the giant Frenchman with a scooping righty layup, crossing the lane to do so.
“(Bazley) is really ambidextrous around the basket he can play with both hands and then even when he misses shots you can see he's got a quick jump back up off the floor to tip balls back in,” Donovan noted.
“A plus that does come from me playing the five is that a lot of fives are obviously a lot bigger than me, and often times slower, so I have a bit of an advantage on the offensive side,” Bazley said.
On Sunday against the Wizards, Bazley was on the right-hand side of the floor and again sensed a trap. He split the pair of defenders attempting to corral him and finished a smooth, agile righty layup to punctuate a stretch of seven quick points for the rookie in the first 2:15 of the 2nd quarter. Flashing his enhanced decision-making ability after a four-month hiatus, Bazley showed what an NBA offseason can do to slow the game down for a youngster.
“(Bazley) really had a nice combination of when to shot fake and drive it, and then obviously when to take the 3,” said Donovan. “Darius was playing out of close outs. When he does drive right and as long as he is, he's got a really uncanny ability to finish with that right hand around people. He can step around people and reach out.”
Bazley has a lot of time in the NBA ahead of him, so who knows how long the career-high in points he set on Sunday will last. Looking at his ability to score from both the inside and the outside, Sunday’s mark may not hold for long.
What projects best for the Thunder is that even during his scoring spree Bazley was committed on the defensive side of the ball, ran the floor to create spacing and made the hustle plays to impact winning outside of the stat sheet. If the rookie can do those things and provide a bit of scoring as well, he could be an impact player in the upcoming playoffs in addition to next year and beyond.
“He’s a great young man. Everything that comes his way he’s well-deserving of. He works hard and he’s going to be a good player in this league,” the veteran center Muscala gushed, before correcting himself. “A great player,” Muscala said.
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