It’s been a weird season for the Oklahoma City Thunder. It’s been an even weirder season for Darius Bazley.
Once the Thunder traded its veterans during the offseason, most fans expected the franchise to hand the keys to Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, and he has delivered (and should’ve been an all-star, but I won’t get into that here. I’m still mad, though.) But the spotlight also shifted to two other young players that showed flashes last season — Luguentz Dort and Darius Bazley.
Despite a few up-and-down stretches, Dort has shown the improvements that Thunder fans we’re hoping for, especially on the offensive end. He’s a decent fit offensively next to Gilgeous-Alexander, and is still hounding players on the defensive end.
Bazley? Well… It’s complicated.
It’s been an inconsistent season for the 20-year-old sophomore, even before a shoulder injury sidelined him in early March. And for any team like the Thunder that is rebuilding, there are two important questions that have to be evaluated:
Are there are any players currently on the roster that fit into our long term plans? And if there are, what areas of development deserve the most focus?
In this piece, let’s examine Bazley’s career so far, what he’s done this season and if he’s one of the answers to that first question for the Thunder.
From Rookie to Sophomore
Looking at the raw numbers, Bazley has had an underwhelming 2020-2021 season so far.
The per-game numbers aren’t bad — 11.9 points, 7.5 rebounds, 1.9 assists, 0.5 steals and 0.6 blocks in 30 minutes — and they are marginally better than his rookie numbers. But the main concern has been his shooting numbers.
The shooting percentages have been abysmal — 39% overall, 48% on 2-pointers, 29% on 3-pointers. He ranks 16th out of 18 Thunder players in both effective field-goal percentage (45%, eight points below league average) and true shooting (48%) this season, per NBA Stats. Both numbers only rank above rookie Aleksej Pokusevski and Josh Hall, who has played 12 games for the Thunder this season.
In his 36 appearances this season, Bazley has shot 40% or worse in 21 of them. He has shot above 50% in just 12 contests.
His rookie numbers didn’t jump off the page (5.6 points, four rebounds in 18 MPG), but the hope for a Bazley breakout year mostly stemmed from his performance in the Disney World bubble last season. In the Thunder’s first-round series against the Rockets, Bazley averaged 6.6 points and 6.7 rebounds in 18 MPG while shooting 50% from 3-point range, making 11 of his 22 3-point attempts.
The per-game numbers from that series aren’t spectacular, but his per-36 minutes stats jump to 13.1 points and 13.4 rebounds — incredibly solid, especially for a rookie in his first playoff series.
To sum up, Bazley hasn’t necessarily taken a step back this season, but he hasn’t really jumped forward, either.
Flashes of potential
All of that isn’t to say Bazley has just been flat-out bad this season. He’s definitely had moments.
Bazley has had nine double-doubles this season, which highlights his primary area of steady growth through his career — rebounding. He’s had 12 games with 10 or more rebounds this season and is grabbing 21.4% of available defensive boards while he’s on the floor, per Basketball Reference, ranking second on the team behind Moses Brown, the greatest player named Moses in NBA history.
He grabbed a season high 16 rebounds against the Lakers at Staples Center on Feb. 9 while adding 21 points and four assists in arguably his best game of the season. He only shot 33% from the floor, but he showed flashes of scoring from all areas of the floor.
He opened the game with this unassisted 3-pointer:
Less than a minute later, he drove right by Markieff Morris for a nice reverse layup:
Later in the first quarter, he drove by three Lakers defenders for a layup that even made the Lakers’ announcers take notice:
He’s also had a few dunks this season where his athleticism is fully on display. Check out this dunk from the Thunder’s win against the Hawks in February:
The numbers haven’t always looked good, but Bazley has shown flashes where one could argue that he is a no-brainer member of the Thunder’s young core alongside Dort and Gilgeous-Alexander.
Future with the Thunder
No one outside of Sam Presti likely knows the answer to this question, but for speculation’s sake, let’s provide some contest.
First, it’s important to note that this NBA season has been strange. There was essentially no real offseason and shortened training camp, Also, Bazley was thrust into a starting role this season after coming off the bench his rookie season, and growing pains likely should’ve been expected for a young player in his first season as a starter amid a pandemic.
Bazley is also just 20-years-old, and progression isn’t always linear. The Thunder last season was much better than this season’s squad, and last year’s team was stacked with accomplished veterans. The only remaining veteran this year, Al Horford, has been shut down for the year. Even Dort, who has been rightfully praised for his play this season, has cooled off after a scorching hot start to the season.
But either way, it’s clear that Presti is willing to ship out young players if he believes they’re not the right fit with the team. He traded Hamidou Diallo a few weeks ago for Svi Mykhailiuk and a second-round pick despite Diallo having a career season. Diallo is also set to hit restricted free agency in the offseason, and it’s possible Presti was unwilling to pay Diallo much to keep him around.
Bazley’s future with the team may come down to how the Thunder fare in the NBA lottery the next two seasons. If the Thunder fails to land a top-five pick in the offseason, maybe Presti packages Bazley and his war chest of picks to try and trade for a spot higher in the draft. While Bazley could still grow into a solid NBA player, tanking for a small-market team like the Thunder is all about acquiring as much high-level talent in the draft as possible.
With the Thunder rebuilding, no one on the roster is really safe from being moved. While Bazley has potential, it may be an easier decision for the Thunder to move on via trade or letting Bazley walk in free agency after his rookie deal expires in 2023 if that potential doesn’t turn into consistency sooner rather than later.