Tuesday night during the Hawks’ 106-94 season-opening loss to the Pistons, Bazemore was firmly in the spotlight. It wasn’t for his antics, but for a moment that shows just how far he’d come, even if it didn’t go quite as planned.
He wasn’t drafted, had to fight his way onto a roster via the summer league and spent time in the D-League. But as the Hawks went through their pregame introductions, the quartet of All-Stars Jeff Teague, Kyle Korver, Al Horford and Paul Millsap were joined by Bazemore at small forward, marking the first season-opening start for the 26-year-old.
"A lot of hard work. I think it was a very emotional night," Bazemore said. "My mom’s here, my dad’s here."
The 6-foot-5 swingman played 21 minutes, but went scoreless for the first time since March 30 — and for just the third time in the last 22 regular-season games — going 0 for 3 from the field and turned the ball over four times. He was minus-17 on the night, though he did grab seven rebounds.
"I thought the way he rebounded and the way he committed to the defensive boards was good," said Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer. "It’s going to come to him. He plays with such energy and such passion he wants things. He’s such a great competitor and I think sometimes he’s got to slow down and let it come to him."
He wasn’t anywhere near as effective as he was during the preseason — he averaged 10.4 points, 3.6 rebounds and 1.0 assists in 22 minutes, including 18 points in 31 minutes a week ago against the Grizzlies — and gave way to Thabo Sefolosha, whose defensive activity caused the Pistons problems.
"Eighty one games left, though," Bazemore said. "Watch a little film tomorrow, see what I can get better at. Probably should be more aggressive shooting jumpers. Guys running at me I kind of overthink. I was just shooting it some times."
Bazemore and Sefolosha are expected to share the role with DeMarre Carroll having left for Toronto and free-agent riches, and that Sefolosha played just two less minutes in the former’s return from a leg injury only underscores that notion. As did Budenholzer’s comments about their use.
"I think we feel fortunate we feel really strongly about both guys (Sefolosha, Bazemore)," Budenholzer said "and I think there are scenarios where we’ll mix and match and, as the season goes, see if there’s different combinations that we like better."
Defensively, both made their presence felt last season, as Bazemore had 1.9 defensive win shares to Sefolosha’s 1.7, though Bazemore remains the better offensive option. He had a 49.8 effective field goal percentage last season in averaging 5.2 points and 3.0 rebounds; Sefolosha’s eFG percentage has dropped in each of the past two seasons to 46.8 in ’14-15.
But how their partnership works in replicating the hard-nosed defense and surprising offense that Carroll supplied in his breakout season will evolve, or ultimately de-evolve into one of them seizing the starting job outright.
For those opening minutes, though, the focus was on Bazemore and a moment that seemed unthinkable during the end of his days at Old Dominion.
Arrested for a DUI as a senior in Aug. 2011, he would be booked a second time four months later — just minutes before tipoff of a home game — for violating a court order.
In that June’s draft, 60 picks went by and Bazemore wasn’t selected. But the former National Defensive Player of the Year, thanks to his agent’s made his way onto the Warriors summer league team (sharing a roster with Draymond Green, Harrison Barnes and Klay Thompson) and earned a roster spot.
He appeared in 105 games in two seasons with Golden State, but played just 5.1 minutes per game. That changed with a trade to the Lakers, where Bazemore played 28 minutes a night and averaged 13.1 points, 3.3 rebounds, 3.1 assists and 1.3 steals and started 15 of 23 games before suffering a tore tendon in his foot.
Signed by the Hawks to a two-year deal, Bazemore turned himself into a fixture in Budenholzer’s rotation, making 10 starts, a role that expanded due to injury as he opened the final two games of the Eastern Conference finals against the Cavaliers.
His holding onto that spot was seemingly a given since he started five preseason games, plus the fact that Atlanta is bringing Sefolosha along slowly.
It’s’ an ability to play perimeter defense and hit down shots as the recipient of the Hawks’ ball movement that will ultimately decide whether Bazemore or anyone else will be able to fill the void Carroll left behind.
Bazemore struggled, but as Korver joked with reporters after the loss to Detroit, "Do you remember the first game last season? Neither do I."
"Who did we play last season?" Bazemore said. "First game goes by and then we go 17-0 January. … We all got a lot of getting better to do."
It was one game, but then again, for Bazemore it was a game unlike any he’d ever played. There’s no taking this point away from him: to start the Southeast Division title defense, Budenholzer is giving Bazemore the first crack at the job.