The Russell Westbrook era is over in Oklahoma City. After a season that saw the Thunder finish 6th in the Western Conference, the team suffered a first-round exit at the hands of the Houston Rockets. The loss prompted more questions than answers. Will the combination of Paul George and Russell Westbrook be enough to win in the Western Conference? Can General Manager Sam Presti build upon a roster with little cap flexibility and few draft assets? Fans and pundits alike received their answer, and it was a resounding no. In a shocking turn of events, the OKC brass shipped out perennial superstars Paul George and Russell Westbrook for a treasure chest of picks and players, most notably future Hall of Famer Chris Paul and emerging young guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. Make no mistake about it; the OKC Thunder are in the earliest stages of a rebuild. Enter Darius Bazely Jr, the team’s 23rd pick who hasn’t played competitive basketball in over a year, let’s delve into why Oklahoma City’s “mystery man” may end up being one the steals of this year’s draft.
It may sound cliche, but Darius Bazely Jr. took the road less traveled on his journey to becoming a first-round pick. As a sophomore Bazely Jr. averaged 15.8 PPG, 12.4 RPG, 3.8 APG, 2.4 BPG, and 1.5 SPG before transferring to Princeton High School for his junior season. Bazely initially committed to the hometown Ohio State Buckeyes but reneged on their offer in favor of playing on a “bigger stage.” Bazely found that bigger stage when he committed to Jim Boeheim’s Syracuse Orangemen but the McDonald’s All-American spurned Syracuse in favor of signing with Rich Paul of Klutch Sports. The original plan had Bazely Jr. playing in the NBA’s G-League for a season before entering the 2019 NBA Draft. Bazely Jr. instead opted to sit out the entire 2019 season to focus on the draft. Bazely even signed a shoe deal, the first of its kind internship/endorsement deal with New Balance.
On the floor, Bazely Jr’s game is reminiscent of former 6th Man of the Year, NBA champion Lamar Odom. Bazely Jr.'s ball-handling and playmaking make him an anomaly of sorts, he checks all the boxes in terms of measurables at the small forward position coming in at 6’9, 210 pounds with an almost 7-foot wingspan. Looking at his physical profile it’s easy to see why scouts think Bazely Jr. has the potential to be an elite perimeter defender.
Bazely Jr. played limited minutes in summer league because of contract negotiations but showed the promise that made him a first-round pick. Bazely Jr.’s jumpshot is still a work in progress, but he played with a good motor and demonstrated an ability to play on and off the ball. Bazely spent time in Memphis working with Memphis University assistant coach, NBA alumni Mike Miller on his game. Miller heaped some praise for the rookie’s discipline and work ethic during their private workouts. The hard work paid off when Bazely Jr. arrived at the NBA Combine at 210 pounds, up 15 pounds from the last time Bazely Jr. played competitive basketball. These gains surely helped solidify his draft status, easing any qualms coaches and scouts had about Bazley’s stature and work ethic.
In a draft filled with big names, Bazely Jr. has one of the highest ceilings. I understand why GMs in the teens or early lottery strayed away; he’s been a largely unseen commodity who hasn’t been active against top competition in quite some time. Being taken at 23 is more of an indictment on his situation than his actual talent. Never forget Giannis Antekounmpo was the 15th pick, Pascal Siakam was the 27th pick, and Mitchell Robinson was the 35th pick. Thunder GM Sam Presti’s draft history speaks for itself, the league’s last three MVPs have been Presti picks. Bazely Jr. maybe a project of sorts but he possess all of the tools in shed necessary to be a valuable contributor for the new-look Thunder.