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A New Age: Darius Bazley’s unlikely NBA journey has him destined for greatness

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The rookie’s path to the big league is unconventional, and it might be the reason he will succeed.

Cleveland Cavaliers v Oklahoma City Thunder Photo by Zach Beeker/NBAE via Getty Images

Between skipping college basketball for an internship, nearly going straight from high school to the G-League, and living with two-time NBA champion sharpshooter Mike Miller, it’s clear that Oklahoma City Thunder wing Darius Bazley— who showed flashes of greatness this season before sustaining an injury that will sideline him for 4-6 weeks— has always had one goal in mind: quickly get to the NBA and work to be one of the greats.

Even when Bazley was a junior at Princeton High School, he’s always been craving the “big stage.” After initially committing to Ohio State in August 2016, Bazley soon changed his mind, stating that “it’s nothing against the school or anything, but my one ultimate goal is to get to the NBA and I just didn’t feel as confident as I did when I first committed that Ohio State was one of those schools that could get me there.”

While it’s easy for many high schoolers to have say they have NBA goals, Bazley’s high school coach, Steve Wright, saw this potential in Bazley the first time they met.

“Oh, I mean my first time ever seeing him play,” Wright said. “I knew he was a pro. I knew he would play in the NBA. I told him that one summer at the Peach Jam, we were sitting in the hotel room and I had a conversation with him and I said, I was at Princeton High School at the time and he wasn’t there, and I saw the ability that he had and some of the things that he needed to work on and I said ‘if you was decided to transfer to where I’m coaching at, I promise you that you will be a McDonald’s All-American and you’ll play in the NBA’ and the rest is history.”

As time went on, Bazley’s goals remained the same but the path changed again. He once again committed to a college — this time it was Syracuse — then ultimately decommitted to get one step closer to the NBA.

The reason that Bazley left Syracuse was to attempt to join the G-League as well as sign with one of the NBA’s most prestigious agents — Rich Paul, who also represents Lebron James.

Bazley’s plan was destined to be extremely unique and adaptive; And he wasn’t finished changing it yet.

After having a seemingly foolproof plan in place of getting to the NBA via the G-League — which already would have been one of the more fascinating paths to the league in recent memory — Bazley decided to change things up once again.

In August 2018, he dropped his G-League plans to spend the season training to be a professional. According to an interview with The Athletic, Bazley did this because of the various expectation levels in the G-League. He thought playing well would be the expectation and he wouldn’t have a chance to truly shine. Bazley saw it as a deterrent to his goal.

Steve Wright continued to support Bazley’s decisions, remaining true to his NBA prediction.

“I supported whatever path that he decided that he wanted to take,” Wright said. “Whether that was going to Syracuse or playing in the G-League or just sitting out like he did. I was always making sure he had my support ... The camp that he’s with, the people that he’s around decided that it was best for him to sit out. That’s what he did and it worked out for him.”

Despite Wright’s confidence, Bazley’s decision was a monumental risk. He was going to essentially take the year off from competitive basketball and then have to go right to the NBA.

In order to continue the NBA dream, his training needed to be gritty and tough. You can’t just go to the local YMCA, shoot around with a bunch of nobodies, and expect to compete after Adam Silver calls your name. Bazley knew he needed to go the extra mile.

This extra mile was discovered almost by accident. While Bazley was working out the ins-and-outs of his decision in Los Angeles, he ran into NBA forward Skal Labissiere, who put on about 20 pounds of weight, according to a New York Post story about Bazley.

Bazley, knowing that he needed to do the same, asked for Skal’s coach — Memphis-based trainer Raheem Shabazz. Bazley did a week-long trial run with Shabazz, loved it, and knew he had to stay in Memphis. With a weight trainer picked, Bazley now needed two things: a basketball trainer and a place to stay. Rich Paul used his vast connections network to net him both a place to stay and a trainer, all in one home.

Enter Mike Miller.

“Obviously just through his agent, Rich Paul and I have a relationship with Lebron and it was just one of those things where it was Darius coming out and just wanted to work and train and get ready for the draft,” Miller said. “You know the route he took obviously is not a secret so it was just one of those things where, you know, learning how to be a pro and coming down here and getting in that gym and really working on his jump shot and some of his other skills. But, unbelievable kid, love the kid.”

Miller, who finished his NBA career with a 46% field goal percentage, says Bazley needed to work on shooting and getting more game experience.

“I think just, more than anything, just game reps,” Miller said. “You know, a young kid who just, when you don’t go to college, you know it’s game reps, being able to understand the ups and downs, how long the season is. You know, all the regular things young kids go through when they go to the NBA, I mean it’s a big jump.

“But for him and just his game keeps going, I think his skill level and the way he plays it fits the NBA now. The better he learns to shoot, spot open shots, he’ll be better. But he’s an unbelievable talent who has a bright, bright future.”

After living at Miller’s house and subsequently completing a million dollar internship with New Balance, the rest was history. Bazley was drafted, traded to the Thunder, and is now a key part of the 14th youngest team in the NBA.

Bazley is now halfway through his first rookie season, and Miller’s evaluation of his strengths and weaknesses are accurate, based on what we’ve so far this year. Coming into the draft, Bazley was known for his slashing abilities, versatility on both offense and defense and natural rebounding talent. In 17 minutes per game, Bazley averages 4.5 ppg, 0.5 apg and 3.7 rpg. While these stats aren’t going to win him rookie of the year, there’s still clear flashes of talent when you break down his abilities.

He’s been good so far at knifing through defenses, defending multiple positions with ease by utilizing his length and athleticism, and being an efficient inside scorer from about 3 to 10 feet away. By contrast, the shooting, strength issues, and lack of experience are obviously hurdles for him to work on overcoming.

When a player is drafted as raw talent, it’s hard to evaluate how good they’ll truly be. If Bazley can develop a shot, put on more weight and continue to develop the skills he already has in the next few seasons, he can become one of the bright young players in this league.

An interesting player comparison that I’ve seen with Bazley — if he develops his game more — is Lamar Odom. Odom, in addition to being another lefty like Darius, had such a versatile skill set with his instinctive rebounding, ability to defend almost every position, aggressively drive into the paint and knowledge to move without the ball to set screens. Odom had such a high basketball IQ and could play every position on the court for short stints. There’s a reason that Odom won the Sixth Man of the Year Award in 2011: he’s one of the more versatile players in the past decade. If Bazley develops his already multifaceted game, he can grow to this level.

Miller thinks that Bazley is destined for greatness due to his player type and work ethic.

“I think he has a very high ceiling,” Miller said. “The best thing about a lot of it has to do with, you know, is on him, which is what you want. Knowing him and how hard he worked, how much he loves the game of basketball. He controls his future because his talent level and his size, his skillset and his size. He’s going to continue to work on that jumper and get it more and more fine tuned. He’s one of those guys where the game’s going, he’s a new-age NBA basketball player and can be a match-up problem.”

Poll

What do you think Darius Bazley’s NBA ceiling is?

  • 30%
    Future all-star
    (30 votes)
  • 49%
    Long-term starter
    (48 votes)
  • 19%
    Rotation guy
    (19 votes)
  • 0%
    End-of-bench energy guy
    (0 votes)
97 votes total Vote Now