For the Atlanta Hawks, the focus over the next few years will be player development. The young players on the team, from top draft pick Trae Young to undrafted two-way point guard Jaylen Adams, will get the majority of coverage as their games grow at the NBA level, since most every move they make will be new. The conventional wisdom for the established veterans, on the other hand, is to provide guidance to the next generation and steady play at their position to help evaluate which young players are worth keeping when the time comes.
It’s easy for these veterans’ careers to stagnate as they take on this role, especially if the coaching staff doesn’t challenge them to better their own games and use the low-pressure environment to take on a new role on the court as well. Not every veteran on the 2017-18 Hawks subscribed to that theory, but Kent Bazemore was not among them; he ran with his opportunity for more touches and showed flashes of playmaking that were previously thought to be beyond his skill set.
At the outset, it’s important to make a distinction between player development and new opportunity. Bazemore’s underlying creation numbers from previous seasons indicate that he always had the playmaking skills he showed last season but never had the opportunity to use them on a consistent basis. Player development in general is more of a spectrum than black and white: do players develop skills purely out of quality coaching and opportunity or are the skills always there but don’t shine through until the opportunity presents itself? The answer, which is different for every player and every situation, is likely somewhere in the middle.
For Bazemore’s playmaking, the answer seems to be further toward the latter. Since arriving in Atlanta in 2014, which coincided with the first time he was a key cog in a team’s rotation, his assist rate has always been above average for his position on the wing. In 2017-18, it spiked to 20.0 percent, by far the largest his Atlanta career. That mark was better than 90 percent of his fellow wings last season and placed him firmly among the upper echelon of playmaking wings: for reference, Bradley Beal posted an assist rate of 20.6 percent and Victor Oladipo clocked in at 20.9 percent.
Assist rate alone doesn’t always tell the tale, as sometimes an increased portion of his team’s assists can simply be a result of a player’s usage rising. In that case, we’d look to Bazemore’s AST/USG ratio and his ASTD percentage, which both back up the eye test: Bazemore created for himself at roughly the same rate as he has in previous seasons, which means the uptick in usage went directly to an uptick in playmaking. That same conclusion is also borne out from the AST/USG ratio, which was the highest of his NBA career in 2017-18.
The extra playmaking wasn’t entirely positive for Bazemore, as his turnovers also spiked in 2017-18. The difference between a player like Bazemore and his counterparts in the secondary playmaker role is here: Beal’s 11.5 percent turnover rate ranked in the 70th percentile last year, and he’s consistently been above average in taking care of the ball. Oladipo was a bit worse at 12.6 percent, but neither player touched Bazemore’s astronomical 16.7 percent turnover rate.
There were only six wings in the league worse than Bazemore in this category (one of them being teammate DeAndre’ Bembry), and only one who played more than 1,000 minutes last year – Clippers rookie Sindarius Thornwell. Diving into Bazemore’s pick-and-roll numbers, the outlook isn’t any better: of the 74 players who ran at least 450 pick-and-rolls last season, Bazemore’s 14.8 percent turnover rate trailed only Joe Ingles and Devin Booker for worst in the league.
As a secondary playmaker on the wing, the three pillars of Bazemore’s offensive value are his ability to knock down three-pointers, make plays for others, and not turn the ball over. The shot has come and gone over the years: 39 percent in his first Atlanta season, then down to 36 and 35 percent the next two years, then back up to 40 percent, a career high, last season. Combined with a higher pick-and-roll usage, the increased three-point marksmanship is a big boon to his game.
As more of his three-pointers (and jumpers in general) come off the dribble, his ability to keep his percentages up will be a massive help to his playmaking. Everything is connected in pick-and-roll: the ball handler’s ability to knock down shots off the dribble forces defenses to go over every ball screen, which in turn makes it easier for that ball handler to get into the paint and either finish or collapse the defense for a kickout pass. Like his three-point shot, Bazemore’s efficiency off the dribble goes up and down, but he’s taking a lot more of those shots as he ages into his playmaking role with the Hawks.
Where things go from here for Bazemore offensively will have a lot to do with new head coach Lloyd Pierce. Mike Budenholzer, now in Milwaukee, ran a free-flowing offense that gave rise to opportunities for multiple players to handle the ball. The offense went through some dramatic changes throughout Budenholzer’s five-year tenure, but his team’s penchant for moving the ball and giving the defense lots of different looks prevailed.
How Pierce’s offense will be set up is mostly an unknown at this point: Will he lean on Bazemore more heavily to create for his teammates, especially now that the team’s nominal point guards are quality three-point shooters? Will he push Bazemore back toward being a 3-and-D wing, with an enhanced focus on spot-up shooting and slashing, with a few passes thrown in when he’s able to get into the paint? Bazemore’s involvement and role within the offense is just one of many questions surrounding the Hawks as we creep ever closer to the beginning of the season and will go a long way toward shaping his league-wide value as the trade deadline approaches in February.