By Jeff Caplan, NBA.com
HANG TIME SOUTHWEST — As the world waits for the big fish to name their teams already, a few eye-popping (-rolling?) contracts have been agreed upon, such as Orlando eager to prop up Ben Gordon for a couple more seasons at $9.5 million, Detroit promising Jodie Meeks $19 million and Portland giving Chris Kaman a raise!
All three players have logged enough NBA service time that we know more or less what each brings. Maybe Gordon will magically adjust his attitude along with his 3-ball, and maybe Kaman mixes in a pass, but all-in-all there’s not a lot of unknowns here.
So what of an actual surprise, a virtual unknown out there who could become the steal of free agency?
The versatile, 6-foot-5, 201-pound Kent Bazemore always thinks he’s capable of making believers. He always has.
He went undrafted after four years at Old Dominion, where he won NCAA Defensive Player of the Year in 2011. In 2012, after signing with Golden State, he was ranked No. 499 on ESPN.com’s list of the top 500 NBA players. So he had “499” stitched into his sneakers the ensuing July and turned in the best Las Vegas Summer League performance of anybody.
On Feb. 19, 2014, with the Warriors needing a veteran backup point guard and Bazemore in his second season riding the pine, Golden State traded him to the depleted Los Angeles Lakers for Steve Blake. Suddenly, the kid from rural North Carolina, and an admitted Kobe Bryant admirer growing up and who is equal parts fun-loving and hard-working, was granted real playing time.
Mike D’Antoni threw him into the starting lineup, played him at shooting guard, at small forward, at point guard. He gave the developing talent the green light to shoot the 3. Bazemore’s infectious, goofy smile and full-time hustle and work ethic became instant hits. And then as if catching the injury bug that decimated L.A. last season, his came to a screeching halt five games shy of completion when he tore a tendon in his right foot that required surgery.
But he had opened eyes around the league by averaging 13.1 points, 3.1 assists, 3.3 rebounds, 1.3 steals and shot 37.1 percent from deep in 23 games, 15 of which he started.
At the time, Bazemore described the injury as stemming from “overuse,” which it might have been considering he more than doubled his total minutes played with the Lakers (643) in half the number of games he played in with the Warriors (268 minutes in 44 games) before the trade.
In that short span, Bazemore put up numbers similar to those of rejuvenated journeyman Gerald Green in his first season with Phoenix. Green finished fourth for Most Improved Player of the Year. Now Bazemore, who turned 25 on July 1, the first day of free agency wants to show he can do it over 82 games.
The Lakers could have retained him for a qualifying offer of $1.1 million, but they passed to ensure as much cap space as possible on the gamble that both Carmelo Anthony and LeBron James would want to join Kobe. It allowed Bazemore to become an unrestricted free agent.
According a source, Bazemore is seeking a boost in salary, around $3 million per season, as well as a little stability in the form of a two- or three-year contract. Such a commitment would suggest any team that makes it will be willing to give the athletically gifted Bazemore what we really desires — consistent playing time.
Interest in the long-limbed and innately motivated swingman has been encouraging. The Lakers remain interested in bringing him back. Atlanta, Charlotte, Boston and Utah join L.A. in the top five in terms of teams that have shown consistent interest.
Dallas, Houston, Golden State, Phoenix and Philadelphia all had at least preliminary discussions with Bazemore’s camp.
Bazemore met with the Hawks in Atlanta on Monday. His representative has meetings scheduled this week with San Antonio, Boston and Charlotte, and Utah could be added.
Bazemore will be back in Las Vegas later this week to check out the start of Summer League. He won’t be playing this time around, but it is the perfect backdrop for the long shot to continue the pursuit of his next team, his next contract and a breakout season.
The steal of free agency? Bazemore has a chance to be just that.