It has been two seasons, but time has flown for Thunder forward Darius Bazley.
"The years go by fast, " Bazley said. "I was just a rookie last year. "
While the time may have moved quickly in Bazley's eyes, much has transpired for the 21-year-old forward during his time in the league. He's experienced the highs of consecutive career-high scoring performances to the lows of extended injury and being relegated to the sidelines. However, in Bazley's case, it has been both the ups and downs throughout his career that have guided him in his development as a rising third-year player.
"I feel like I've really grown a lot as a player and a person, " Bazley said during his end of season interview. "I think from the start of this season and to the end, I've matured a lot with just the different opportunities and experiences that I've had the chance to go through. "
Bazley's track record of taking such opportunities and experiences in front of him and using them for growth dates back to his rookie year. When the 2019-20 season was put on pause due to the Covid-19 pandemic, Bazley took advantage of the 143-day NBA hiatus to work on his body and improve his physical development despite the lack of access to a gym or formal training room. When he returned to the hardwood during the restart, he did so with a stronger frame, ready to take on more contact.
The then-rookie also saw a boost in his offensive numbers following the hiatus. After averaging 5.6 points and 4.0 rebounds during the regular season of his rookie year, Bazley's post-season numbers increased to 6.6 points and 6.7 rebounds while shooting 50 percent from the 3-point line.
That consistent train of development continued into his second season when he assumed a starting role along with a larger responsibility on both ends of the floor. However, following the All-Star Break, Bazley endured a shoulder injury that would keep him off the floor and away from precious playing time for 16 games.
Much like he did during the 2020 NBA hiatus, rather than fixate on what he was unable to do, Bazley leaned into the opportunity in front of him to focus on the minutiae of his craft. The injury afforded him a luxury that the compressed 2020 offseason couldn't give him – time. Time to slow down and hone in on film sessions and skill work. As a result, Bazley returned to the court with a noticeable added level of force to his game. Attacking the rim with authority. Hunting paint touches on each catch.
"He's really starting to understand how athletic and strong he is and is gaining a lot of confidence in that, " Thunder Head Coach Mark Daigneault said following Bazley's career-high 26-point performance against Washington in April.
"We're just lighting the fuse on it. We love to see it. He's gonna make mistakes. He's not gonna be perfect, but that aggressiveness and that force he's playing with is the type of player that we think he can be. "
In the 19 games that he played following his injury, Bazley averaged 17.2 points after contributing an average of 11.9 in the previous 36 contests. But perhaps the biggest indicator of Bazley's increased forcefulness on the offensive end were his free throw numbers. His constant drives to the rim, physicality and decisiveness translated into 97 free throw attempts in those 19 games. Prior to his injury, Bazley attempted 81 in 36 games.
"He's got tremendous, consistent work both physically and skill-wise, and that's work that he wasn't able to get in the off-season, " said Thunder General Manager and Executive Vice President Sam Presti. "He actually got almost like a mini off-season during the injury, and I think that's one of the reasons he finished the season so strong. "
It wasn't just on the offensive end where Bazley took strides in his sophomore season. In that career game against the Washington in mid-April, the forward not only recorded a career-high 26 points but was also tasked defensively with checking Wizards guard Russell Westbrook minute for minute. It was a new assignment for Bazley who typically matched with bigger perimeter players or small forwards. Taking on a smaller, explosive guard like Westbrook came as a surprise to the young forward, but another welcomed opportunity to increase his switchability and versatility at 6-foot-8.
"He's gonna make mistakes. He's not gonna be perfect, but that aggressiveness and that force he's playing with is the type of player that we think he can be. "
"I feel like it was necessary to be able to go through those things, " said Bazley. "I could see myself guarding bigger wings and smaller guards in the future. So I'm glad I got to experience that. "
All the while, Bazley continued to prioritize the core anchors to his game: running the floor and rebounding. As a rookie, he would often times be the first one up the floor in transition using his long strides to outrun the defense and break ahead of the pack. Those detailed anchors were still present in his second season even as he continued to layer on different and larger elements to his game. As the experiences multiplied throughout the year, so did Bazley's appreciation for those details of his game.
"I'd say the biggest takeaway, the stuff that I strive for, the stuff that the team strives for, it's found in details, " said Bazley. "So just to keep working those little things. It could be as simple as talking on defense, talking in transition, watching film. That stuff is found in details. I'm taking away a lot from this season. "
The 2021 summer, though still abbreviated, will be the first true NBA offseason for Bazley's career and will serve as another chance for the forward to continue his development. The top focus for him during this time period – getting stronger and building good habits.
"This offseason I'll prioritize consistency, staying at it in the weight room as well as on the court, " said Bazley. "Just staying at it. "