After a 2016-17 season mired with poor efficiency from the field amid the pressures of a massive contract signed the previous offseason, Kent Bazemore bounced back in a big way in 2017-18. Bazemore’s value at the NBA level (and the reason he got paid in 2016) has always been as a 3-and-D wing capable of hitting high-30s on his three-point percentage and defending both guard positions on the other end, but when one of those falters, he looks as though he barely belongs on the floor, much less worth his $70 million contract. When it all comes together, however, Bazemore lives up to every dollar of his starter-worthy contract, as he did this past season for the Atlanta Hawks. Despite a step backwards for the organization overall, Bazemore took a step forward in every area of his game: he shot a career-best 39.4 percent from beyond the arc, posted a 0.96 defensive RPM, which ranked seventh league-wide among shooting guards and is by far the best mark of his career, and even opened up his playmaking game as the Hawks relied on him for the highest usage of his Atlanta career.
A rebuild is now what Bazemore signed up for, but it’s exactly what he got just one year into his four-year contract. A lot of veterans in his situation might pack it in, content to keep cashing checks and blame any step backwards in his game on the team; Bazemore did the exact opposite, instead using his expanded role to develop other parts of his game while still giving high effort and being a good locker room presence. Mike Budenholzer praised Bazemore’s leadership in his exit interviews after the season ended, telling reporters that “Baze’s voice in our locker room, Baze’s spirit in games, he’s just phenomenal.”
One would only have to look at Dennis Schröder, who signed a four-year extension in the same offseason as Bazemore re-upped with the Hawks, to understand how a player could decide to rest on his laurels and not work to take the necessary steps to improve himself. Facing a losing situation, Schröder wilted from the challenge, giving effort only when it suited him and only on the offensive end of the floor, whereas Bazemore put up the best season of his career in every way while still finding the time to develop his skills into a new area.
The 3-ball and defense were welcome returns to what had become the norm for Bazemore before last season, but the most important development that took place in 2017-18 was his ability to create for himself and others off the dribble, especially in pick-and-roll situations. More than 41 percent of his possessions this season came in pick-and-roll, per Synergy, up from 32 percent in 2016-17 and 23 percent the year before. As the team got worse around him, Bazemore was in the perfect situation to take on a larger role within the offense.
In a year filled with career-highs for Bazemore, it seems a bit odd to highlight an area in which he struggled mightily. Atlanta scored just 88.4 points per 100 possessions on Bazemore’s pick-and-rolls this season, a mark that ranked better than just 37 percent of his colleagues in the league. He turned the ball over on a ghastly 10.3 percent of these possessions, which ranked 95th out of 105 players who ran at least 250 pick-and-rolls this season. Bazemore wasn’t the team’s best player this season based on his pick-and-roll play, but it was easily the most important aspect of his season; as he gets more comfortable as a secondary ball handler able to attack defenses in multiple ways, the Hawks’ offense will prosper as a result.
Outside of turnovers, finishing at the basket was a big struggle for Bazemore. With the ball in his hands as the primary creator on more possessions, the defense was locked in on stopping him when he drove to the rim, resulting in both fewer drives and a worse percentage once he did get there. Bazemore shot a career-low 30 percent of his shots at the rim and converted just 56 percent of his shots close to the basket. Becoming a better finisher will be a key step for Bazemore’s development as a creator—he’s no longer driving closeouts against a defense that’s rotated away from him, he’s driving straight into big men who see him coming and are in position to turn him away at the rim.
On the defensive end of the floor, 2017-18 was a return to form for Bazemore, who ranked in the top ten percent in both block and steal percentage and finished sixth in the league with 3.7 deflections per 36 minutes (among players with at least 1,700 minutes this season, to get rid of non-starters). Atlanta’s defense cratered when he left the floor, dropping 3.1 points per possession, which is even better when you consider that more than 75 percent of his time on the floor was shared with Schröder, who was absolutely abysmal on that end this season past season. When Bazemore was on the floor without Schröder, the Hawks gave up just 104 points per 100 possessions, a mark that would have ranked them third over the course of a full season. Make no mistake, the Hawks earned their bottom-five defensive ranking this season, but very little of the blame should fall on Bazemore’s shoulders.
Bazemore has two years and $37.4 million left on the contract he signed in 2016, including a player option for 2019-20 that he’ll almost certain pick up, but the contract doesn’t look nearly as bad as some of his Class of 2016 contemporaries. Starting-level players are worth roughly $15 million in today’s cap environment and while Bazemore is still making more than that number, he’s certainly in a much better place than he was a year ago and the future looks bright for the 28-year-old.