Darius Bazley is Doing Things

I was neither old enough nor cerebral enough about basketball to understand the depths of The Process Sixers. In retrospect, it is very difficult to see how there is any surface level difference between the Hinkie experiment and what Sam Presti is conducting in OKC. Based on precedent, it’s kind of wild both that this is happening and that there hasn’t been any repercussions. I’m not trying to be a whistleblower in any regard, but I’ve watched this team play about 15 times since they sat Al Horford, and I just have to shake my head and laugh.

Oklahoma City is the embodiment of the ethically shoddy scientist: perhaps even the Umbrella Corporation as a basketball organization. Will Adam Silver pull a Chris Redfield and put an end to this? The shenanigans and experimentation happening on a nightly basis with the Thunder cannot be undersold. It’s bordering on diabolical. Lu Dort 40 pieces, Poku near 5×5’s, and Theo Maledon is actually shooting!

What I’ve found most striking this year has been the development of Darius Bazley. Bazley’s path to the NBA has been unique. The 2nd year forward was a 5 star recruit who originally committed to Ohio State and Syracuse, then the G-League pre-Ignite, and then ultimately opted out to take an unprecedented internship opportunity with New Balance. You can read more about that here in a fantastic piece by Nick Crain.

Last year, I was intrigued by Bazley and the idea of what he might be as a spot-up shooter who could potentially attack close-outs and defend across a few positions. Since then, Sam Presti tossed the team into a particle accelerator, and yeah everything is molecularly altered now! Is he reanimating as Dr. Manhattan?

via GIPHY

Before we dive into the tape, let’s go over some of Bazely’s statistical profiles. Since his return from injury on April 10th, Bazley has put up 18.1 ppg on 51.4% true shooting across 17 games. This is coming on 26% usage along with an 11.9% assist percentage compared to a 14.8% turnover percentage.

The efficiency isn’t great, and the turnovers are a bit rough as well. However, given the context, it’s more about the flashes and finding consistency and comfortability. Allowing Bazley the opportunity to discover and unearth his self creation skills is the key here.

Using Stathead, I put in statistical markers for players in their aged 20/21 seasons that correlate with Bazley based on usage percentage, turnover percentage, true shooting, and assist percentage. While these aren’t indicative of anything, it’s good to get a historical gauge of how his recent play compares to other players.

I did not mean to highlight Melo’s name, this was not meant to indicate anything about him or his relation to Darius Bazley

Again, this is just a stats query and the sample size from Bazley is small, but I found this extremely curious. The statistical matches are wild to me. There are a lot of toolsy combo forwards on this list. That’s kind of where I’m at in how I view him, although given the current era, I think he will play the 5 in some lineups (more on this later).

I don’t at all expect Bazley to reach near the scoring heights of Carmelo Anthony, Shareef Abdur-Rahim, Bernard King, or Paul Pierce since they all came into the NBA with far more complete and complex shot creation skillsets. However, I really do think there is something to the idea of Bazley as a an impactful two-way 4 with passing oomph, some on-ball equity, the ability to hit spot-ups, and defensive versatility.

Darius Bazley with the ball in his hands: Things that make you go “hmmm” for 800 please.

The shin angle/power generated

The human body is not built to get your knee parallel an inch off the ground as you’re driving to the rim, yet here is Darius Bazley, generating enough power to get to the rim in like 2.5 strides. The beautifully ugly enigma that is the 2021 Thunder is putting Bazley in a position to command the offense. It’s a mixed bag, but that’s expected. This is an experiment in the truest form as Bazley is trying new things every night, tweaking his handle, his rhythm, and collecting more and more data along the way.

He’s discovering his talents game by game. The self-creation he’s shown while volatile, has provided glimpses of high leverage ability.

Stat MasuredFirst 36 GamesPast 15 Games
PnR & ISO poss. per game3.36.6
Percentage of Rim Attempts unassisted37% (45th percentile) 64% (90th percentile among forwards)
Shooting Fouled Percentage8.9% (60th percentile)14.4% (90th percentile)
Data courtesy of Cleaning the Glass and InStat Scouting (As of 05/09/21)

Bazley is excelling because of his ability in the drive game and the Thunder are selling out to get him as many on-ball reps as possible to polish his burgeoning craft. As shown in the screenshot above, the power that Bazley generates in tandem with his length give him real potential to become a high level driver.

His handle is also vastly improved in comparison to last year which has spurred on the leap he’s made this year as a creator.

Snake, seek contact, misses shot, but like the process, would like to see him go up against Tristan Thompson

Bazley’s stride length in tandem with this improved handle are helping him get to the rim at a ridiculous rate since his return from injury. Saying that Darius Bazley can get to the rim almost at will is not a false statement. It’s not always pretty. In fact, it might rarely be which speaks to his physical advantages. If he can put all of his tools together in sequence, he will be cooking with nitroglycerin.

In this drive on Tristan Thompson, Bazley gets Thompson leaning one way, crosses him up to gain an advantage, stumbles a bit after the cross and he still draws the foul.

That possession highlights the flashes but also some of the kinks in Bazley’s progress. He can break someone down off the dribble because he has the burst, but his footwork and handle routinely are out of sync. His upper and lower body feel like they’re operating on different planes of motion or at different speeds.

This is not at all meant as a slight or to sound discouraging! However, these things are fairly prescient of some of his issues as a finisher right now.

What stands out about this possession?

For starters, Darius Bazley loves spin moves as a counter. I’m not in his head of course, but in watching this clip and a multitude of his games, it’s clear how much he wants to go to his right hand.

That in itself isn’t a problem, most young players tend to be reliant on their dominant hand. However, what makes this different in Bazley’s case is that he does most things on court left handed.

“I’m pretty weird,” Bazley said with a little laugh after the game.

He taught himself to play basketball with his left hand when he was a kid. While trying to correct himself after misses, he would imitate his dad’s critique.

“So I’m shooting around with my right hand. And I kept missing shots,” Bazley said.

“And so I would like, imagine as if I’m playing with my dad, like shooting around with my dad. And I would shoot, and if I would miss, I would act as my dad, and come in like ‘No!’ you know, ‘This is how you shoot it, Son!’ And I went up and I would shoot, almost to like redeem myself for that miss that I just had.

“And then I just kept missing with my right hand and so I just switched to my left and it worked for me, I guess. I just stuck with it. It felt pretty natural.”

Logan Newman, ThunderWire

For reference: Bazley has taken slightly over 300 attempts at the rim this season, and 79.6% have been with his right hand. He’s attempted one left handed dunk the entire year.

Again, not a bad thing; however, because his handle is still a work in progress, the dichotomy of being a left-hand dominant dribbler and right-hand dominant finisher leads to clunkiness once he gets to the rim.

Here’s another good example. Bazley is able to generate some space off the spin move (his spin move is so fluid), but his feet and the ball just aren’t on the same page as he comes out of the spin and tries to transition to his right hand for the finish. Credit to Marcus Smart for the defense, but this was more on a technical difficulty than anything else.

Feet and Handle out of sync

Bazley comes off the DHO, uses a nice hesitation move on Oshae Brissett, and his downhill burst gets him a wide open look at the rim. But, instead of going quickly into a left-handed finish, Bazley picks up his dribble to switch to his dominant hand, and neutralizes the advantage he had created.

The basketball biomechanics savant, Polar (legitimately one of the best follows on Twitter; awesome dude) pointed this out a few days after I’d put together the out of sync nature of Bazley’s handle to finishing.

While this hitch is noteworthy, I don’t think it’s damning. Bazley has figured out so much in a short time: he just played his 100th career game last month.

Darius is still fairly lanky and hasn’t fully filled out his frame yet. The combination of length and vertical pop Bazley has blended with a more budding ability to generate separation with power. He already can play fairly physically coming downhill, but adding more functional strength will lead to more of these kinds of looks.

Finish through, not around

Not only does this power in his drive game help him against defenders at the rim, but in driving into smaller defenders to get a favorable look.

Protects ball switches hand into layup

Another weapon that Bazley has started to utilize with regularity is his euro step. One of the coolest things to watch this season with Darius was watching him learn how to euro step. Early in the season, he’d attempt his plant step either way too early or too late. The training wheels are off, and Baze is not just down the driveway, but halfway down the block without a helmet on.

Watching him learn his timing and rhythm, ironing out counters, and understanding space has been so enjoyable. The progression is impressive.

:07 mark, same

Again on that spin move ladies and gents. Bazley creates legit separation, it’s not just l’spin pour l’spin. It’s far from perfect, it’s raw, but the flash is there!

Even though he loses the ball, his threat at the rim commands the defense (granted, the Pacers’ defense is, uhhh something this year).

Spin, lost ball, but like…

This brings me to my next point and one of the most important pieces of the puzzle. Darius Bazley is drawing fouls at an absurd rate. This is huge. Regardless of your level of efficiency, drawing fouls is a great thing, and that’s without fully filling out as mentioned prior.

Where many of his drives finished earlier in the year with a turnover, Bazley has started to fine tune his drives, and he is in the process of working out his deceleration. The ability to get downhill the way he can AND not just barrel to the rim but alter his stride length and anticipate the help is huge. Let’s be clear, this doesn’t happen every time, but that it’s happening at all is great.

What’s most impressive: Bazley isn’t just lucking or knocking his way to the free throw line. He’s shown flashes of self-created free throws. In the next clip, he gets the ideal matchup on Furkan Korkmaz, takes him off the bounce, crosses right, and as soon as Korkmaz raises his arms, Bazley swings up with the ball to draw the easy trip to the line. Do I love that the rules allow for foul-grifting? No. Am I going to berate a player for grifting themselves to the line? Also no.

As always, get the bag and get the bucket in whatever way the rulebook and officiating allow you to.

Self-Created FT!!!!

Playmaking

Bazley’s ascension as a driver and creator of advantages has opened up a great deal for him. The playmaking sparks arising from his swelled gravity have certainly caused me to rewind after I raised my eyebrows on more than one occasion.

On a broken play, Bazley finds Kenrich Williams with a nice bounce pass.

I wouldn’t describe Bazley as a high or low feel player. He can make some fairly premeditated reads and telegraph a lot of his passes, but he’s at such a raw state as a playmaker, it should probably be expected! Mistakes are important! Making mistakes on a young team that isn’t actively trying to win is the point.

This possession presents a microcosmic view of Bazley as a playmaker. The first pass feels extremely premeditated, and that makes sense! His first read would be to the slipping Isaiah Roby. However, he doesn’t see Kelan Martin standing right in the path of where he’s sending the ball.

He corrals the loose ball and is careful not to force anything before finding Roby on a fairly nice read to the wide open corner. It’s such a herky jerky possesion.

The full Bazley experience

Putting himself in these situations to develop as a playmaker is huge because he is an inconsistent playmaker at present. That’s not a slight, it’s not easy to be a good playmaker or to develop into one at the highest level. He has the gravity. Can he utilize it to boost those around him?

Wraparound/KO

I’m not sure Bazley will ever become a proactive passer, but he’s had some beautiful moments making reactive reads as the defense adjusts to him out of pick and rolls.

And also out of drives to the rim.

One of the areas where I’m most excited about Bazley’s playmaking ability is through dribble handoffs. We haven’t gotten to see as much of it recently given how much of an on-ball burden Bazley has after Shai Gilgeous-Alexander’s injury, but I think it’s one of the avenues that will really pay off for him as his game matures and the Thunder creation hierarchy works itself out.

He has ridiculous fluidity in his hips which opens up for the ability to slip. As I’ve heard the great Nekias Duncan and Steve Jones Jr. say a thousand times “What’s the best way to beat a switch? A slip.”

Slip

Again, note how quickly Bazley is able to flick his hips and get open. The DHO isn’t sexy, but as his handle and offensive comfortability as well as the overal spacing improve, it’s easy to imagine this becoming a regular action that bodes well for the Thunder.

Slip DHO

Anything that gives Bazley the chance to impact a play on either end is a win. As his playmaking continues to evolve, I’m interested to see what that means for what he’s routinely doing on the court.

Bazley’s Defensive Upside

It is so difficult to understand and gauge defense in Oklahoma City: a by-product of playing one player older than 25 in the regular rotation (Kenrich Williams). Prior to Al Horford’s shutdown, the Thunder were ranked 11th in defense through the first 42 games, allowing 112.1 pp/100 per Cleaning the Glass. Since Horford’s last game on March 24th, Oklahoma City is allowing 117.1 pp/100, 27th in the league over that span. There are flashes of cohesive team defense, but there’s A LOT of Poku and Moses Brown lost in the void.

Honing in solely on Darius Bazley, what is he right now defensively and what might he be? Bazely is certainly a step slow on defense most of the time largely due to being a young NBA player. I’m not at all worried about the game coming to him in terms of speed and processing what’s going on around him. He’s attentive and wants to play defense and played solid defense on a playoff team last season. Again, the context this year is so wonky.

As you can see here, Bazley is reacting to what Marcus Smart does rather than trying to dictate. He falls for the initial hesitation, and that’s just enough for Smart to get the advantage he needs.

This is consistent with young players: learning and developing more of a defensive feel for the game takes time. One area that stands out for Bazley is off-ball activity. He’s listed with a +4 wingspan, he has the length and is a positive athlete, but you can see some hesitancy off-ball and even on-ball as well.

Much like I wrote about with RJ Barrett, it’s not a lack of effort. It rather appears that Bazley doesn’t want to make mistakes, doesn’t want to foul, or put his team at a disadvantage. He can almost be so intent on paying attention that he takes himself out of a play because he’s trying so hard to process things correctly and not make any errors.

For instance, Bazley originally rotates over to tag, his job in the scheme, but then closes the distance back to the corner early. This opens the rim for Malachi Flynn. Ideally, this is a vertical contest, blocked shot, or just a flat out deterrance of Flynn’s rim attempt by Bazley and a close-out to the corner.

So who could Darius Bazely be as a defender? How does he move on the defensive end and what’s his versatility like?

In terms of movement profile, Bazley reminds me quite a bit of how Jeff Green moves on court, and they have similar types of athleticism. They have nearly identical frames, albeit Bazley is more wiry as he hasn’t fully filled out yet. However, Bazley also has moments where his feet seem a little shiftier and less plodding than Green, and his stride length and quick-twitch hips separate him as well.

Jaylen Brown has developed into one of the better off-ball movers in the NBA. Bazley does a solid job of sticking with him. The path could certainly be better, but his elite combination of length and athleticism allow him the ability to stick with some of the better athletes in the league regardless. As his footwork and defensive awareness improve, he could consistently provide this kind of movement and ability on that end.

Good off-ball

I’m fairly confident that Bazley will be more than passable as a perimeter defender as the team improves and he does as well. While it wasn’t perfect, he played solid defense as a rookie on last year’s playoff team and found most of his minutes due to the ability to use his athleticism and size to make an impact on that end.

Right now, Bazley’s activity and stock percentages leave something to be desired. Again, it’s worth noting that it’s not an effort problem. By actively trying not to make mistakes, he tends to take away any opportunity for himself to make a high impact play outside of his role. Often times a steal or block happens due to a calculated gamble, and Bazley is rarely showing his hand. Nevertheless, when he does, Darius Bazley shows the potential flashes of a defender who can close-out, move his feet laterally, and provide some intriguing moments of rim protection.

Bazley ultimately fouls Joel Embiid on this play, but the timing is very good. He sees his opportunity to fly in weakside and you can see the vertical pop and his ability to use his length to his advantage.

After a bunch of poss. being sort of in no man’s land, he pulled this out

On this possession, Caris LeVert takes Bazley off the dribble, but he stays attached to LeVert’s hip and gets vertical at the rim altering the release and the shot in general.

The next step for Bazley is just upping his work rate and activity as the game comes to him defensively. Think of it almost like a boxing match. A fighter who consistently throws a jab gives their opponent something to think about — something they have to defend against and react to. On top of that, that fighter can change levels on their jab — layering the process and causing more problems for their opponent. Later on, you can flick a quick jab, feint the second, your opponent brings up their guard, and you step into a shovel hook to the body.

That’s how I view defense in the NBA. Currently, Bazley throws the jab consistently by being in the right place. Can he start using his length and improve his footwork to play closer to the level of the screen and deter shots or force a ballhandler to pick up their dribble? It’s a constant process and Bazley has gotten down some of the initial steps.

Here’s a good example. I have no idea why OKC is using him in a drop on ball screens, but they do! This is one of those moments where he does the right thing, but if he adds those layers, he can step in and maybe jab at the ball or clog the shooter’s vision. Small tweaks like that can have big results.

Can He Shoot?

Bazley is odd to me as a shooter. He shot decently on a solid attempt rate last season, but of course, small sample size. This season, he’s shooting better on pull-ups than catch and shoots (32.4% to 29.4%) while also taking just under two pull-up threes per game.

The flashes and difficulty of the perimeter shots are freakin fun. Step-backs, side-steps, step-ins: he’s trying them all.

The good thing is that he isn’t a hesitant or scared shooter. He’s gunning like he’s building up his MyPlayer. Fire away by all means!

I feel much more confident in his shot when his hands are up and he’s in a stance. He seems to get into his motion much better when he’s ready before the ball gets to him.

Roby makes a solid kickout pass to Bazley’s shooting pocket (Nice touch by Darius to shift over and give Roby a better passing angle), he sizes up, rises, and fires.

When he’s not in an athletic stance and ready for the ball, not so much. I know this may seem unfair given that it’s late shot-clock, but that’s part of the point. If he is ready for this shot or at least better prepared to get into his motion, it’s going to be a better shot.

Obligatory “I’m not a shot doctor!”

Cleaning up some of the small aspects of his shot like his stance before receiving the ball and the little dip he does with the ball before he gets into his motion could go a long way towards developing his consistent floor-spacing ability.

The shooting will likely figure itself out, I’m not too worried about that. We’ve seen so many guys develop into at least league-average shooters and I’m confident Bazley will as well. The pull-up flashes provide promise for what a more well-rounded shot could mean for his game.

I get asked a lot about why I’m still watching lottery team’s games this late in the year, or regular season games at all. Darius Bazley is why. Every year, there are guys who finally get an opportunity or chance to put on at a different level, in a new role, and see what happens. Seeing that progression, knowing that that player has been waiting for this, and seeing them capitalize is just awesome.

Hardly anyone is talking about Bazley and it’s not about me being first; it’s that I want to point this out so badly! What he’s doing is so cool to witness. No, the efficiency isn’t great, his on/offs are poor (which is not overtly indicative of anything I might add), but he’s trying new things and showing real flashes! That’s cool! It matters!

Darius Bazley is doing things. He might be making a leap, I don’t know to what height that leap is taking him, and I don’t really have any conjecture on his ceiling. What he’s done on court has completely changed my understanding and perception of a player I thought I understood. It sounds so rudimentary, but at the crux of things, that is why I love basketball. I thought I had a grasp of what he would be in the league, envisioning his role and potential trajectory. Humanity and basketball always amaze me, finding ways to say “you know that box, that construct you think means something? Let’s flip that on its head and toss it out the back of a C-130 at 6,000 feet without a chute.”

Awesome things are happening on every team. Sometimes you just have to dig a little deeper to find it, but joy is there. At the end of the day, it’s basketball, and there’s a reason why you fell in love with it that comes through at some point in the 48 minutes of on-court play. For me the past month, it’s been Darius Bazley’s progression.

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