When Darius Bazley was selected 23rd overall in the 2019 draft, a lot of Thunder fans were confused by the selection. Why would a win-now team select a young, raw, rookie over a seasoned collegiate athlete like Brandon Clarke or Grant Williams?
The state of Bazley’s play was a mystery heading into Summer League after he skipped over college and overseas basketball completely in order to train for the NBA and finish his internship at New Balance.
Heading into the season, fans and reporters alike were questioning whether Bazley would start his NBA career in the G-League with the Oklahoma City Blue or possibly ride the Thunder’s bench in a Deonte Burton-like role with the Thunder. But through his first 15 NBA games, Bazley has played 262 minutes, or 17.5 per game, ranking 17th among all rookies in total minutes played.
It’s hard to expect a 19-year-old rookie who wasn’t taken in the top five to prosper their first NBA season. Bazley has certainly been a mixed bag so far. His defense has impressed me and other fans, while his offense to me has been well below average.
Let’s take a closer look at how Bazley has been performing on both ends of the court this season.
Bazley currently has a -3.3 O-PIPM (Offensive Player Impact Plus-Minus), which ranks 2nd to last in all of the NBA, ahead of only Cam Reddish (-3.8). The Thunder’s offense rating drops from 113.71 to 93.77 when Bazley checks in, according to pbpstats.
Bazley has struggled mightily finishing in the restricted area and in the paint, a spot where he’s shooting 13/26 from on the season.
Despite his current struggles close to the basket, I wouldn’t expect this to remain a pattern throughout his NBA career. Bazley’s 7’0 wingspan allows him to utilize his athleticism for creative and nifty finishes around the rim.
Bazley has only attempted three mid-range shots on the year, which is a good sign for a player that doesn’t project to be a high profile shooter. Of the 30 threes Bazley has attempted this season, 28 of them are classified as open or wide-open per NBA.com. He’s made 11 of them. There’s not much else to Bazley’s scoring game at the moment, but it will be interesting to monitor how he continues to use his length to his advantage on the offensive end.
On the other hand, Bazley has great vision as a passer for a 19-year-old forward. Despite ranking in the 20th percentile among bigs in AST:USG ratio, per Cleaning The Glass, you can see the potential he has as a possible tertiary facilitator. He especially loves to fire skip passes for open three-point attempts.
Bazley’s defense has been the bright spot for his season thus far. Despite having very low stock numbers (steals + blocks) on the season, his defense has been surprising, to say the least.
Although individual defensive rating is an imperfect stat, Bazley currently ranks fifth among NBA players who play 15 or more minutes a game and have appeared in 10 or more contests.
With Bazley on the floor, the Thunder’s defensive rating drops significantly, going from 113.30 when he’s off to a mere 97.81 when he’s on. Among all players 21 or younger this season, Bazley’s D-PIPM is tied with Hamidou Diallo for 3rd at 1.3, behind Jarrett Allen and Josh Okogie, two very stout defenders.
Bazley shows good anticipation when going for blocks and steals and is able to use his length to intercept passing lanes and reject shots.
Did the Thunder get a steal?
While I am impressed with Bazley’s defense so far this season, I don’t think he’s done anything that should have fans thinking the Thunder got a future all-star 23rd overall. Bazley is a solid, fluid athlete yet lacks the burst and bounce that other premier forwards have. His finishing has been a problem this season, as he gets stonewalled at the rim frequently without getting a foul call. Unless teams continue to constantly leave him open, his three-point shot will continue to regress to around the 32-34 percent range in my estimation.
While there are a few players I personally wanted the Thunder to draft1 over Bazley, I’m not disappointed in his play so far. Getting a solid 7th-8th man at the end of the first round is a success in my book, and I think that’s the type of player the Thunder have on their hands.