It was time for Thunder coach Mark Daigneault to pull the plug.
After 27 regular season games, the Oklahoma City Thunder opted to relegate longtime starter Darius Bazley to the roster’s second unit. In the Dec. 18 decision, Bazley’s shift to the bench marked the end to an 84-game stretch of sliding into the starting lineup.
A month later, Bazley officially made his return back to the starting group, logging 19 minutes against the Dallas Mavericks on Monday evening.
But, for the 21-year-old, his resurgence back to the ones did not come as a handout – the opportunity was properly earned.
In Bazley's initial stretch as a starter, the 6-foot-8 forward failed to gel himself within Daigneault’s offense. With a starting core of two top-level ball handlers in Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Josh Giddey at the helm – Bazley’s third-year role rested in a catch-and-shoot gig heavily grounded at the wings.
While playing as an off-ball option, the third year forward struggled massively in his first stint, grounding out averages of 8.5 points and 6.3 rebounds across 27.4 minutes per contest. The biggest misstep in his play came in his efficiency, however, as the forward shot a measly 37.3% from the floor, 63.0% from the stripe, and a paltry 28.1% output from deep, taking 3.6 attempts in the process.
At its worst, defenders would completely disregard Baze at the perimeter, forcing shots. When he elected to take matters into his own hands off a drive, turnovers and stagnant play in the offense became a major factor.
However, in his last month of play, Bazley has restored his value on the Thunder’s roster, making his jolt back to a starter no surprise.
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During ten games of bench play, it took some time for Baze to truly mesh into his bench role. Much like his starting runs, the forward opened his second-unit stretch playing way too heavily as a shot creator, oftentimes launching shots that simply were not there as opposed to making the extra pass. Essentially, a case of tunnel vision was blurring the forward’s best interest.
Concluding a pair of stale games, Bazley found his stride in layering out 17 points and 11 rebounds as the sixth man versus the Denver Nuggets. In this game, his bread and butter came around the rim with 7-of-8 makes inside. In those seven makes, Bazley's craftiness as an off-ball cutter hit its peak – as given his bouncy and speedy archetype – Denver’s frontcourt could not stomp him.
In his previous four games in the “bench mob,” his skill as a slasher blossomed into a primary storyline.
With averages of 14.3 points, 6.5 rebounds, and 1.0 assist, highlighted by 16 and 17 point streak-closing efforts, Bazley bolstered his resume across four-consecutive double-digit games to make his best rebuttal yet for his original role. Under the forward’s last run, opening at the right wing continued to be the trend. Though, with backdoor cuts, fastbreak finishes, and a solidified game both gathering and spinning downhill while bearing the ball – interior play ousted the competition yet again.
On the other cut of the basketball, Baze’s defensive play, which has often been questioned, saw little low points as when playing at the rim, he starred with 1.5 blocks per game in the second unit. In full, his routine rejections have placed himself into a team-high 1.2 blocks per game.
Bazley’s unpolished three-ball remained dusted coming off the bench, shooting a spotty 9-of-33 (27.3%) in his sample. When recognizing his offensive situation may return up top, he’s still an unfinished product alongside his co-stars. Though, both his energetic runs as a shot blocker and interior attacker have been hardened while pulled from starting lines.
Daigneault has preached the idea of starting spots being both situational, and needed to be earned. So, it’s no sure thing Bazley has reclaimed his spot for the remainder of the season. But, one thing is for certain – he’s earned his stripes in getting back to his starting status.