LAS VEGAS — Kent Bazemore couldn’t put “499” on his jersey, so he figured he’d have it stitched in gold on the blue underside of the tongue of his Under Armour sneakers.
That, No. 499, is where Bazemore landed on ESPN’s 2012 top 500 player rankings. The 2012 undrafted free agent out of Old Dominion came in one spot below Shan Foster, who has yet to play in an NBA game since being drafted 51st in 2008, and one spot ahead of Eddy Curry, who hasn’t kept a steady gig for five years.
Bad karma? Nah, it was cool, for Kenneth Lamont Bazemore Jr., who’s used to flying under the radar, as they say, and already beating the odds. He spent five seasons at ODU — he was a redshirt freshman, and who does that anymore? — raised eyebrows a year ago in the Las Vegas Summer League and then played sparingly as a rookie with the Golden State Warriors while frequently shuttling to the club’s D-League affiliate in Santa Cruz.
In fact, for the 24-year-old, No. 499 seemed fitting. He expects you to underestimate him.
I’ve had my back against the wall my entire life,” Bazemore said. “Coming out of high school, I got a few Division I offers, but they were mid-major, a lot of D-II offers, you know, just a long, lanky kid from Kelford, North Carolina.
“But,” Bazemore continued, “I always worked. I had got my foot in the door last summer just playing defense, working with [Warriors assistant] Joe Boylan everyday and watching film.”
Now making his second tour in Vegas, Bazemore, who has always combined magnificent athletic ability and showstopping, raw talent with a bit of an on-court keystone cops routine, has emerged as a leading MVP candidate as the Warriors enter today’s semifinals of the inaugural summer league tournament undefeated at 5-0.
The 6-foot-5 shooting guard has scored 51 points in the last two games. He’s been running the point at times, particularly in crunch time, and using that long, lanky body to take any defender that plants himself up top off the dribble and to the rack. He burned the Lakers’ backcourt Saturday night for 10 of his 26 points in the fourth quarter as Golden State rallied from 10 points down to extend the team’s overall summer winning streak to 12.
“That’s what summer league is all about, developing guys and guys getting better and better in game situations against good talent,” Warriors coach Mark Jackson said. “It’s a process, but he’s a guy we really like a lot.”
Still, Bazemore remains a relative unknown on an emerging Warriors team that boasts young star Stephen Curry and up-and-comers Klay Thompson and Harrison Barnes, and Bazemore will almost assuredly remain a depth player for Jackson after the Warriors added veteran Andre Iguodala this summer at Bazemore’s position.
But that’s also cool with Bazemore, who wisely seems to be treating his initial NBA seasons as an education.
“Hey man, that guy’s an Olympian, he’s an All-Star,” Bazemore said of Iguodala. “It’s the perfect situation for me because I can still sit back and learn, learn from one of the best that’s done it at every level. Now, as a leader of this [summer league] team, everything is under a microscope. [Saturday] I turned the ball over (seven times) and it’s kind of like letting my teammates down because they’re like, ‘Come on’ and ‘You shouldn’t be turning the ball over.’ But in the big leagues I’m going to be out there in spot minutes, so I can just go and wreak havoc.”
Which he did for a brief, and fleeting, moment in the wild, series-altering Game 1 against the San Antonio Spurs in the second round. Bazemore, playing in the final minute of double overtime because Thompson had fouled out, sprinted down the sideline after Tony Parker missed and Barnes pulled down the rebound, quickly feeding Curry. Forcing the pace, Curry spotted the galloping Bazemore, who took the pass, flew through the paint along the baseline and put in a tough reverse off the glass to give the Warriors a 127-126 lead with 3.9 seconds to go.
“I’m like, ‘All right, OK,’ but you’ve got a Hall of Fame coach on the other end,” Bazemore said. “They always get a great look after a timeout, so we’ve got to get a stop. That’s what Jarrett Jack was saying the whole time, ‘Got to get the stop, got to get the stop.'”
And then just as quickly as Bazemore looked to be the hero on the highlight-reel play of his brief career, he got tangled up in the paint on the Spurs’ inbounds pass, Manu Ginobili sprung free at the wing and as Bazemore tried to recover, launching his long, lanky body toward Ginobili, the 3-pointer dropped with 1.2 seconds to go.
Jackson subbed in Andrew Bogut and Bazemore took a seat.
“That was another welcome-to-the-NBA moment,” Bazemore said. “Manu Ginobili is arguably a Hall of Famer at the end of his career. [Spurs coach Gregg Popovich] drew up a great play. We wanted to switch everything, but they ran a little brush screen; they didn’t really screen, so [there was] miscommunication and Ginobili was wide open.
“Just a good player making a great shot.”
Which is exactly what Bazemore, No. 499, keeps working toward. He dares you to underestimate him.