NBA: Portland Trail Blazers at Golden State Warriors

Let’s look at a couple of video clips. First, here’s Oakland’s favorite cheerleader-raconteur Kent Bazemore taking it to the rim in NBA Summer League play. He spies an opening, and uses a frighteningly quick first step to reach the hole, where he absolutely destroys the rim, triggering a rally that culminated in a Warriors win.

Next is Bazemore in a similar position with the senior squad, in a mid-January game against the Denver Nuggets. Again, Bazemore uses that quick first step to split the defense. This time, the effort wasn’t quite as successful. Baze clanks it off the rim badly, falling backwards and rolling into the stanchion.

These two plays collectively illustrate both the promise and peril of expecting big things from Summer League superstars like Kent Bazemore. Everything moves a little quicker when you’re playing against NBA rotation-quality players. Baze might also suggest that the hoop seems a little higher, too.

Perhaps more than any other team, the Golden State Warriors seem to cultivate and groom players like Bazemore—guys who crush Summer League competition, but fail to perform to the lofty expectations (unreasonably) placed on them by Warriors fans. Other players that fit the bill include Marco Belinelli, Anthony Randolph, and Brandan Wright. (And Reggie Williams, and Cartier Martin, and so on.)

Promises Unfulfilled

Let’s talk about a few of these guys to see if we can get some purchase on the problem.

Marco Belinelli first rose to prominence in 2007 on the back of a 37-point bomb dropped on the then-New Orleans Hornets in his first Summer League game. While he was primarily a scorer—he averaged 22.8 points-per-game that summer—Belinelli showed solid skill as a ball-handler and passer for a prototypical 6’5” shooting guard.

Nonetheless, Belinelli lasted only two years with the Warriors, playing only 241 total minutes during the 2007-08 season as he languished behind heavy minutes-earners Monta Ellis and Baron Davis. His standing with the team, and with Coach Don Nelson, improved only marginally during the 2008-09 season. After Ellis returned from the NBA’s most infamous moped accident, Nelson buried Belinelli on the bench despite some solid showings in Monta’s absence.

In an ignominious end to his Golden State years, “Marco Jordan” was traded to the Toronto Raptors in 2009 for a bag of bones purported to be Devean George.

Anthony Randolph’s story is remarkably similar. The Warriors took him with the 14th pick in the 2008 NBA Draft with full knowledge that he was going to be a project; he was a skinny, nearly seven-foot tall toddler with unlimited athletic ability. He’d averaged 15.6 points, 8.5 rebounds, 1.13 steals, and 2.26 blocks per game in his first, and only, season at Louisiana State: high ceiling, low floor.

Randolph played decently through the end of his rookie year as the frontcourt rotation fell apart due to injury. His breakout, however, came the summer after his rookie year when Randolph destroyed the 2009 Summer League. He narrowly lost the Summer League MVP to Blake Griffin after putting up per-game averages of 26.8 points on 61 percent shooting, with 8.5 rebounds, 2.2 steals, and 3.0 blocks.

His best performance of the summer came in a 42-point demolition of the Chicago Bulls—a two-way opus full of huge dunks and monstrous blocks.

Still, despite Randolph’s strong performance in the Summer League—he earned an invite to the USA Basketball Men’s National Team camp for goodness’ sake—he failed to play consistently, both play-wise and minutes-wise, in Nelson’s frontcourt rotation amid rumors that he was a bit of a headcase. He played in only 33 games on the season, missing the second half with a severely damaged left ankle.

Randolph was a paragon of inconsistency. One night he would look like a superstar, going for 17 points, 13 rebounds, 2 steals and 3 blocks in 30 minutes against pre-wrecking-ball-era Roy Hibbert’s Indiana Pacers, the next playing six minutes and scoring 4 points against the severely struggling New York Knicks. His shooting efficiency came and went, as did his defensive effort, leading to frustration in the Warriors’ front office and from Nellie.

After the season, hoping to upgrade at the power-forward slot, Golden State sent Randolph with Kelenna Azubuike, Ronny Turiaf, and two picks to the Knicks for All-Star forward and former high-school dunk champion David Lee.

Brandan Wright’s Summer League resume shone less brightly than Belinelli’s or Randolph’s, but still showed promise. In the summer following two injury-plagued seasons, Wright showed great promise on both sides of the ball. In two Summer League matches, he was a foul-drawing machine in the post and shot-blocking savant on the other end.

In his first Summer League game of 2010, Wright scored 18 points, pulled down six rebounds, and blocked three shots in 31 minutes. Even though he was a skinny 6’10” and 210 lbs., Wright’s wingspan gave him the length of man much taller, allowing him to alter any shot near the rim and to score efficiently in the paint.

But again, like Randolph and Belinelli—are we sensing a theme yet?—Wright was unable to break into the Warriors’ rotations during his years in Oakland. Before being traded in the middle of the 2010-11 season to the New Jersey Nets along with Dan Gadzuric for Troy Murphy and a second-round pick (and presumably a bag of old hot dogs), he had played in only 21 games that year for the Warriors, most of it in garbage time.

Greener Pastures

So, what gives? The Warriors have a stellar recent history of developing talent capable of dominating the Summer League—but that talent rarely ever reaches the floor. And it’s not as if these guys aren’t NBA-caliber players, either.

Even in his time in Golden State, Randolph showed promise against real NBA players. He was just too inconsistent from game-to-game to rely on. Despite a litany of injuries and DNP-CDs over the course of his six-year career, Randolph remains a per-36 monster, and has—with the exception of the current season, and only barely—historically held an above-average Player Efficiency Rating (“PER”).

Belinelli is now an integral piece of the San Antonio Spurs’ rotation, shooting 45.4 percent on threes and playing a key backup ball-handling and scoring role. For large portions of last season, Belinelli and Nate “Lil’ Nate” Robinson seemed to be the only things keeping Chicago’s atrocious offense from causing dozens of deaths by boredom.

Like Randolph, Wright too is a per-36 beast. He’s been playing for the Dallas Mavericks for the last few years and has been remarkably efficient in limited minutes, with his minute-load increasing steadily over the years. Wright is consistently among the league-leaders in field goal percentage and true shooting percentage and has proven himself to be a heady and versatile weakside help defender and shot-blocker. (And were he to play more minutes, he would also be among the league leaders in PER.)

The reality is that none of these guys are world-beaters. But they’re solid NBA rotation players that simply never found their way in Golden State, whether because of injury, circumstance (i.e., Nellie’s distrust of young players), or misuse.

While playing under Nelson, Randolph wasn’t allowed to play through his mistakes—as a result, he was never able to get the rhythm of the NBA season down. Perhaps this was warranted for one reason or another—I’m a JaVale McGee apologist, so you can guess whether I think Randolph should’ve been given more rope—but I’m skeptical. Even now, Randolph projects as a DeAndre Jordan-type with poorer rebounding skills but a higher offensive ceiling. That’s not bad.

Belinelli was simply misused by the Warriors coaching staff. He’s finally flourishing in San Antonio, where he’s been able to focus on his catch-and-shoot game. Per SportVU camera data, among major rotation players with at least 100 total points off of catch-and-shoot shots this year, Belinelli is second only to noted super-sniper Kyle Korver in field goal percentage, with 51.0 percent, and fourth in three-point field percentage, with 48.9 percent, in catch-and-shoot situations.

Never particularly good at driving or pull-ups, Belinelli has for the most part excised those shots from his game. And he’s never been better.

Wright never got a real shot in Oakland. He was plagued by injuries, and when he was finally available to play, he was stuck behind David Lee, Dorell Wright, and the immortal vampire Vlad Radmanovic on a team in need of floor-spacing. And now that he’s getting minutes in Rick Carlisle’s Mavericks system, Dallas’s sportswriters are clamoring for more.

All Aboard the Baze Train (Toot Toot!)

This all brings us back to Kent Bazemore. What can we expect from the guy, given that he’s stuck behind the historically great shooting combination of Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson, as well as do-it-all wings Andre Iguodala and Draymond Green? (Oh, and Harrison Barnes too.)

Well, the answer is: probably not much so long as he sticks around with Golden State. Bazemore shows very well against Summer League and D-League competition, but is not being put in positions to succeed with the Warriors given his current skillset.

His poor jump shot has scarcely improved at all since last year, although he has been marginally better at the rim. Per SportVU data, his percentages on both catch-and-shoot and pull-up opportunities have been abysmal.

Bazemore’s ball-handling, which looked so much better this summer, has been horrendous—he coughs the ball up four times per-36 minutes, which roughly translates to “whenever an opposing guard places any pressure on him.” Per SynergySports, he has turned the ball over 32.1% of the time this year as a pick and roll ball-handler. That’s really bad.

But let’s also be clear about the situations in which the Warriors have used Bazemore. Prior to the Toney Douglas trade, Bazemore received the majority of his minutes as part of a full-bench squad in which he—a wing with a suspect handle and mediocre vision—was expected to co-facilitate with Douglas, a notably poor ball-handler and passer. It was… less than ideal.

As I wrote a couple weeks ago here at WarriorsWorld, Toney got a raw deal in Oakland. But Baze’s hasn’t been much better in his limited minutes this year. Without a distributor to get him good shots, and without the ability to do it for himself, Bazemore’s shooting numbers were destined to crater. It’s an issue at the heart of the second unit’s struggles.

Baze’s offensive numbers will continue to underwhelm so as long as there’s no locus of passing or court vision off the bench. Unfortunately, so far it doesn’t seem likely to get any better for Baze with Jordan Crawford taking the reins from Douglas.

Paradoxically, and to the team’s great credit, Bazemore’s struggles this year are actually a sign that Mark Jackson and his staff are committed to developing their young talent. It doesn’t seem like years past, when Don Nelson and Keith Smart seemed to hate giving time to young players if there was a retread veteran available. The staff understood that Bazemore’s stuck behind better players at the wing, but that there was playing time available at backup point. Bazemore’s offensive skillset just isn’t good or varied enough to play there yet.

And it’s not all bad, of course. Bazemore brings other skills to the table. His speed, length, and athleticism make him a terror on defense. As starting shooting guard for Old Dominion, Baze took home the Colonial Athletic Association’s Defensive Player of the Year title twice, and the recently established Lefty Driesell Award for National Defensive Player of the Year in 2011. (Some Kentucky freshman named Anthony Davis won it over Bazemore in 2012.)

He’s kept it going when he gets playing time, as seen below. Baze’s motor never stops or stalls, and his spastic movements on the court are reminiscent of stoppers like Brooklyn’s Andrei Kirilenko. Coach Jackson understands this, which is why Bazemore gets some late-game, defense-only minutes in very close games.

Bazemore is also a gem on the bench. His celebrations are legendary, and his excitement is infectious. Bazemore’s epic cheerleading was a major contributor to the solidarity the team felt during its late season run last year.

As Grantland reported earlier this season, Bazemore said:

“At first, (teammates) were like, ‘Look, sit down. You’re doing too much over there.’ But I just kept doing it and then all of a sudden you have Carl Landry and Draymond Green getting up and into it … Richard Jefferson was probably the only person who didn’t really buy into the whole thing, but everybody else—D-Lee (David Lee) and Steph (Curry)—whenever we were getting minutes and they were on the sideline they would do it. … They love it now, and it’s blowing up.”

How can you not want a guy like that on your squad?

Look: we all love Bazemore. He’s awesome. He does stuff like this and this all the time. And we all want him to succeed, just like we wanted our other Summer League superheroes to blossom into real NBA talents. Anyone who doesn’t is a heartless monster.

But this team is simply too deep, and Jackson’s rotations too sketchy, to allow Bazemore to really flourish in the Bay. Thompson and Curry rightfully take the bulk of the team’s backcourt minutes. Iguodala, Green, and, to a lesser extent, Barnes, remain better two-way players than Baze. Crawford’s ball-handling and shot-creating are flat-out necessary when Curry’s off the court.

At this point, Bazemore’s best possible use for the Warriors may be as a trade piece. He’s never going to be a ball-handling slasher, nor is he likely to become a knockdown shooter without some serious practice over the next few years and consistent playing time with a good distributor. But, like Belinelli and Wright before him, Baze can be a real contributor on a good team, so long as he’s put in positions to succeed.

Should he find himself in a system more willing and better able to utilize his talents—a place like San Antonio, Miami, or even Phoenix—Bazemore could very well join the Warriors’ long line of Summer League stars-turned-washouts who found success elsewhere.

But still. I’ll be sad to him go, even it is for a better place.