It was a tale of two seasons for Atlanta Hawks swingman Kent Bazemore in 2018-19. In the first, he was as vibrant as he’s been since the beginning of his career, flying around like the player the fanbase fell in love with in the early days of his time in Atlanta. Then, in Game 35, disaster struck in the form of a nasty ankle injury that zapped a ton of his athleticism for the remainder of the year. He missed the next month and came back to play another 32 games post-injury, but the results were vastly different, with a lot of his burst limited by the hobbled ankle and his individual advanced numbers falling off dramatically.
Before the injury, the 29-year-old wing was well on his way to the best year of his career, with near career highs in several major categories. He was a large part of the team’s offense, taking on a secondary creation role alongside Taurean Prince in the team’s starting unit and doing very well in those spots. He wasn’t even hitting the three-pointer to the level he had become accustomed in the recent past, but he was doing so many other things well that it hardly mattered.
Even with the relatively poor three-point shooting, Bazemore was still putting up 55 percent true shooting through the first 35 games, during which he played the second-most minutes on the team and was the team’s best player, considering how poorly Trae Young started the season and the fact that John Collins missed more than a month at the outset. He was getting to the rim consistently and finishing well when he got there, flashing similar passing as the year before, when he set a career high in assist percentage, and was all over the place defensively, papering over teammates’ mistakes with regularity.
The defense was especially outstanding for Bazemore, who has long been known for his work on that end of the floor. From an individual perspective, his matching 2.8 percent steal and block rates through the first 35 games were absolutely outstanding; if he would have kept that production up throughout the season, his would have been the 17th season in NBA history to have at least 2.8 percent steal and block rates, joining names such as Draymond Green, prime Dwyane Wade, and a host of other all-time defensive superstars. He was starring in his role as a create-and-D wing (since the three-pointer wasn’t falling, it’s hard to give him the 3-and-D moniker this year) and was generating real trade buzz as a guy who could help a championship contender this postseason and beyond.
The post-injury numbers dropped off a cliff, unfortunately for Bazemore. 45 percent true shooting, 2.0 percent steal rate, and 1.4 percent block rate are somewhere between pedestrian and downright awful for a rotation wing. His finishing at the rim dropped off by eight percentage points as he no longer had the ability to get up as high as he needed on those shots, in addition to a lack of mobility to get past his initial defender. He knew it too, telling reporters consistently that the ankle didn’t feel right and that the plan for the summer is to come back as strong as possible in the fall.
Where Bazemore is as a player moving forward has a lot to do with how that ankle heals with a full summer away from the daily grind of playing in the NBA. The Bazemore from the beginning of the year is an elite role player, especially if the down shooting year is an aberration from the norm. Add his normal above-average shooting to what he did over the first 35 games of the year and he turns into a player who would be a starting-level player on any team in the league, save perhaps for a Golden State outfit with Klay Thompson and Kevin Durant on the wing.
There’s a reason there were significant trade rumors surrounding Bazemore and a number of championship contenders; imagine how much the Bazemore we saw early this season would help Houston, Philadelphia, or Milwaukee in their quest for a championship. It didn’t work out for him this year, but with his contract expiring in 2020 and a (hopefully) healthy season ahead of him, it would surprise nobody to see him bounce back in a big way in 2019-20 and find his way to a team with true championship aspirations.