In one corner of the Thunder practice facility, a cluster of reporters surrounds Coach Billy Donovan, who is previewing the team’s upcoming rematch against the Pelicans, but my attention is elsewhere. I’m drawn to a spirited game of one-on-one ensuing at the other corner of the gym. Chris Paul versus Darius Bazley. It’s a height mismatch for the ages. Maybe the distance was distorting my view, but I am almost certain that Darius Bazley’s arm is as long as Chris Paul is tall (no disrespect to Paul). There’s a consistent pattern to this particular game of one-on-one, though. Paul guards Bazley as close as humanly possible while Bazley attempts to drive to the basket. After each drive, they stop and Paul talks to Bazley, miming different moves that Bazley could have made. The assistant coaches are around, but clearly, Chris Paul is teaching this class. After talking for a couple minutes, they reset and Bazley drives again. Drive. Discuss. Repeat. Drive. Discuss. Repeat.
For a 19-year-old rookie, Bazley has already amassed an impressive list of mentors: Rich Paul, LeBron James, Tracy McGrady, several New Balance executives, and Chris Paul (his newest mentor) to name a few. Most of Bazley’s unique relationships are a product of his non-traditional path to the NBA, which involved de-committing from Syracuse University and instead opting for a one-year paid internship at New Balance that would allow him to learn the business side of basketball while preparing for the 2019 NBA Draft.
While Bazley believes that forgoing college was the right decision for him, he says it might not be right for everyone. According to Bazley, players who want to skip college have to present themselves “in a way [for] NBA teams and scouts… [to show] that you’re professional, that you’re ready.”
What kind of person does that take?
“You just have to be mentally strong,” said Bazley.
During his decision process, people frequently pointed out to Bazley that he would be missing out on the “college experience”. But for Bazley, the chance to play on basketball’s biggest stage outweighed the idea of being a campus hero for a year or two. I asked the Thunder forward whether the fans at Chesapeake Arena are a sufficient substitute for the crazed student sections that would’ve lost their minds for him at Syracuse. (The night before our interview was a home game against the Pelicans in which Dennis Schröder and Abdel Nader combined for 44 points, and Steven Adams sent the ‘Peake into a frenzy with a perfect game-sealing dunk, so I already knew Bazley’s answer would be an emphatic yes.) He paused for a minute, reflecting on the previous night’s game, and said, “The fans here are incredible. As a player, I feed off that type of energy. It does a lot for a player just to know that not only your team but also your home crowd is on your side. It gives you a boost of energy.”
Oklahoma City is the perfect place for a player like Darius Bazley, recently crowned the “Fresh Prince of OKC.” He’s down-to-earth, hard-working, fun-loving, and exceptionally polite. From a basketball perspective, the departure of Paul George from the Thunder opened the door to a wealth of opportunities for young wings like Bazley to impress on a nightly basis. I didn’t ask Bazley if he had been looking forward to playing with Russell Westbrook when he was first drafted, but I bet he would agree that the mentorship he has received from Chris Paul is rare in the NBA. Westbrook’s style of play is difficult to teach, mainly because it’s completely unconventional and it only works for Westbrook. Chris Paul is the complete opposite: the textbook example of a point guard, the instruction manual to floor-generalism, the recipe for “no-look pass” success passed down from Magic Johnson himself. For Bazley, the mentor-mentee relationship between Paul and himself has been an invaluable learning opportunity – one that he might not have received with Westbrook.
“It’s been great because [Paul] teaches you so much. Even though we were just playing one-on-one, he was stopping and just saying you can do this or you can do that. It just helps because [he] gives you advice on and off the court.”
Bazley has settled into a great relationship not only with his Thunder teammates, but also with the Oklahoma City community. He spent his first Thanksgiving in OKC with Mrs. Cindy and her family (friends of Coach Donovan and his wife). He found a local Bible study group that he attends regularly before home games. He has connected with fans by sharing their artwork and posting extremely relatable videos like this one of him lip-syncing the Dreamgirls classic “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going” into his TV remote (don’t act like you’ve never done it). Another features him hilariously impersonating a French chef in his car. I asked Bazley what his opinion of OKC is so far (a question whose answer I’ve learned to always take with a grain of salt – thanks for the trust issues, KD). “Oklahoma’s a lot more intimate than a lot of places I’ve been and that’s what I appreciate about this city,” he responded. “People are so welcoming. Yeah, it’s awesome.”
There have been many comparisons between Westbrook and Bazley, usually centered around Bazley’s striking resemblance to a young Westbrook. But the closest comparison is both players’ confidence – on and off the court. Just like Westbrook, Bazley is fearless on the hardwood. He’s not afraid to keep shooting after his last two three-point attempts rim out. He’s not afraid to dunk on Westbrook’s arch-nemesis Joel Embiid. He’s not afraid to poke a little fun at the reigning NBA Finals MVP. Off the court, Bazley’s confidence shines through his loud, 90s-inspired sense of style. When I asked Bazley where this confidence comes from, he said, “From working hard, and then it also helps to have [the] teammates that I have. When you know they’re just there to support you and comfort you every step of the way, it’s awesome.”
Though Bazley’s path to the NBA was unconventional, he found his way to a pretty great situation in Oklahoma City, something he doesn’t take for granted. He recognizes the tireless work it took for him to get to the NBA and the incredible learning opportunities he’s been given by his superstar mentors. His long-term future in OKC may not be guaranteed (no one’s future is), but he’s got the makings and the mentors to be a star in this league.