The first time I met Kent Bazemore was also my first time ever stepping foot in the Golden State Warriors' locker room. Bazemore was lucky enough to be to the right of another guard of the Warriors: Stephen Curry. Curry had just finished being his usual flame-throwing self against the Denver Nuggets and had at least 20 reporters around him. As the guy that isn't the biggest fan of crowds, I decided to talk to Bazemore.
Daps were exchanged and introductions were had, and in an instant, I had to recall everything I knew about Kent Bazemore. ODU alum. Baby afro. Sideline celebration king. That's all I had. He talked up the team, waxed poetic about Curry's greatness, bragged about the hard work his teammates had put in to get to this point and picked at his afro while going through the motions of making a quick exodus out of the locker room. Before leaving, he said something that rang loudly in my head.
"I wish I could've been out there to contribute with the team. I'm happy for them," he said. "But I know I can help this team too, more than just in practice."
The only thing I wondered was whether he'd ever have the chance.
"This league is all about opportunity. When you get an opportunity, you have to take full advantage of it." -- Kendall Marshall to SB Nation's James Herbert.
There is a team that has provided a cadre of young players with that word, and it's arguably the league's most well-known franchise. What initially started as the return of Kobe Bryant and a possible playoff berth for the 2013-14 Los Angeles Lakers went to hell in a handbasket, served up with another Kobe injury, another Steve Nash injury, the continued slow decline of the once-great Pau Gasol and the general quirkiness of
The Pringles Man Mike D'Antoni. In that basket's place, the opportunity for guys like Bazemore to flourish for the Lakers was laid on a silver platter.
It's been guys like Marshall, Xavier Henry, MarShon Brooks, Nick Young and -- after a trade-deadline deal with Golden State involving Steve Blake -- Bazemore himself that are getting their opportunities. At times, they flash that brilliance that made some general managers and scouts salivate at their NBA prospects. If he hasn't already, D'Antoni needs to rebrand his offensive system as the human reclamation project for outcasted basketball players.
Understand this from what we now know about some of these players:
-Kendall Marshall is now statistically one of the better point guards in the NBA, at least in terms of assists and three-point shooting. Plus, he makes the Lakers actually watchable on television, which helped a ton for the sake of this article.
Xavier Henry, a lottery pick just four years ago, may be a desirable free agent this summer. Why? Because he's 22 and he's shown that he can actually be a versatile wing player capable of ball handling, getting to the rim and being a competent shooter. He's averaging career highs across all statistical categories, and ... yeah, he's just 22.
MarShon Brooks is actually a little closer in fulfilling the absurd comparison of being the next Kobe Bryant. By closer. I mean that now he's actually playing and scoring again. Plus, he can actually sit close to Kobe on the bench now.
Nick Young is on pace to eclipse his personal record for assists per game and in a season. He's tied with last year's mark of 1.4 assists per contest, and he needs just 26 assists in 24 games to break his previous record of 95 in a season back in 2009-10 with the Wizards. If D'Antoni can make this happen, then he is indeed an offensive sensei. (Sidenote: that Swaggy P ended up inking with the Lakers for just $1.1 million when any team could have signed him has to make people shake their heads).
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And then there's Bazemore. It's early, but confidence seems to be the biggest change in his game. Or, a sense of urgency. Or both. Part of the reason why Bazemore's averaging 17 points per game in his first four contests for the Lake Show is because of injuries to Young. But I suspect the other reason is that Bazemore is finally getting a chance to just play. In four games, Bazemore doesn't just look like a guy in the NBA. He looks like a guy that can actually stick around for a while.
"I knew I was going to have an opportunity to play, being able to play for a boatload of minutes, it's fun. Thank God I'd been working because if I hadn't then I'd be dead tired and not taking advantage of this opportunity. It's all about showing the work I'd been putting in prior to this moment has been paying off." -- Kent Bazemore, after netting a career-high 17 points versus the Brooklyn Nets
There have been countless players who have come into the NBA and never received the type of chance that Bazemore's speaking of in this quote. The league is funny like that. You get drafted or signed by a team because they saw something in you, had a plan for you or just took a flyer on you, but unless you're a really high pick, you just ride that pine. With constant roster turnover and minimum salaries with limited guarantees given out to be an 11th or 12th man, there are plenty of players who miss out on that chance to really flourish. All because of a stacked roster, a bad system fit or a general manager unwilling to be patient with the young player's development.
What D'Antoni's doing in Los Angeles is giving players like Kent Bazemore a lifeline, and maybe that's how we should remember this otherwise dreadful 2013-14 Lakers season. Maybe this is the year where D'Antoni turns guys that would have been out the league in a year or two into 10-year veterans just by giving them an opportunity at the right time.
Happy Hour drink recommendation: Old Pal - The good thing about this drink is that you'll order this at the bar today and the bartender might not recognize it at first. Then you'll tell him that it's two parts bourbon (you can go rye whiskey here, but I like Four Roses here), one part dry vermouth and one part Campari. And it will be at this moment when he nods his head and gives you a look that let's you know he's impressed. If he's not impressed, you need to go to a different bar, old pal.