After leading the Santa Cruz Warriors to a victory over a team from a SoCal with a 10-point fourth quarter on December 23, it was sort of inevitable that someone would make a Kobe Bryant comparison.
It was the night after Bryant had led his Los Angeles Lakers to an overtime victory over the Golden State Warriors with a combined 13 points in the fourth quarter and overtime - including a big 3-pointer to tie the game at 95 - at Oracle Arena. It was as painful loss to watch, whether at home, on television, in the arena, or on the Warriors bench as Bazemore was.
Bazemore's performance wasn't as dramatic as Bryant's; buoyed by a sellout crowd in their first game at the Kaiser Permanente Arena, Santa Cruz was up on the visiting Bakersfield Jam for the entirety of their home opener. Yet in the fourth quarter, Bazemore clearly established himself as the Warriors' go-to option down the stretch when the Jam cut the lead to as little as four and by far the best player on the court, or at least the most dominant on that night.
"I gotta give thanks to my teammates and my coaching staff putting the ball in my hands and it's something they gotta trust in me to do," Bazemore told media after making big plays in the fourth quarter against the Springfield Armor on December 27th, which included a 4-for-7 3-point shooting performance as part of his game-high 26 points. "It's a lot of pressure, but, you know, pressure makes diamonds."
Talking to Bazemore about his quest to become a NBA regular, it's fair to say that theme of becoming the Warriors' diamond in the rough is at the forefront of his mind as he has worked to prove that he's worthy of a guaranteed contract, which Golden State had until Thursday to agree to.
Undrafted out of Old Dominion University this past year, Bazemore stuck with Golden State after impressing them in summer league play with both his defensive play and energy. But actually getting on the floor in a NBA game has proven a bit more difficult and that's part of what has made his performance in the D-League thus far so significant: Bazemore's glaring weakness coming into training camp was his jumper.
That he has even shot 50% (10-for-20) from 3-point range in the D-League in four games is a testament to the hard work he's put in to remove that barrier to getting playing time with the Warriors.
"One hole in my game is my jumpshot," Bazemore said after a more recent win against the Sioux Falls Skyforce on New Year's Day. "I've been working on it with Joe Boylan down in Golden State. We've been at it everyday getting up shots and it's starting to show. But yeah, in the rhythm of the game you have to be able to take that shot. Just playing up with Golden State, we've got Steph Curry on the court, you've got Klay Thompson, right; a lot of people are going to zone in on them so if I'm on the floor I gotta be able to hit open shots."
Santa Cruz has not at all been taken as a demotion or a penalty to Bazemore, who is thankful just to have the opportunity to show what he can do on the court rather than languishing on the bench. Even with the shuttling back and forth over the mountain, Bazemore is just the type of guy who has seized every opportunity not only to play but also to improve.
And this process of working on his game is becoming more the norm than a novelty for Bazemore, who also had to put in work during his freshman year at Old Dominion to learn a new skillset: in addition to learning how to cheer his team on during his redshirt year, he was learned how to play point guard, something else that he's been tasked with at times with both Golden State and Santa Cruz.
"I played point guard in college [during my freshman year] which was terrible," said Bazemore, when asked about the experience of working himself into the role of a lead ball handler after the Armor game. "Yeah, I couldn't really dribble and the ball pressure is pretty crazy because you got a guy in front of your face, you got players playing passing lanes and you're trying to run a play. It's just something I stayed and worked with, learned how to use my length, keeping the guy on my hip, keeping the ball out, making strong moves, making moves to go by him instead of just playing around with the ball because a guy would get in and pick you."
What's most impressive about Bazemore so far this season as more of an investment in the future than a contributor right now on a Golden State team that could be considered crowded at the guard spot (despite not really having a true "shooting guard" behind Thompson) is that he's consistently shown the willingness to learn and the ability to make improvements somewhat rapidly.
And it was all toward a singular goal.
"January 10 coming up, that's one thing I've been losing sleep over – you know, the 30 minutes of sleep or whatever," Bazemore said on New Year's Day. "But you got to leave it in God's hands, just show up and work hard."
And perhaps that makes it easier to understand how Bazemore draws inspiration from Bryant, his favorite NBA player growing up.
Bazemore, 23, was just eight years old when Michael Jordan retired from the Chicago Bulls the second time and so it was ironically the man so many Warriors fans have come to resent that inspired a rookie who is hard not to love.
"Coming from shooting airballs in the playoffs to him having the ball in his hands down the stretch," Bazemore told media after a Santa Cruz Warriors' win against the Springfield Armor on Dec. 27. "And that's one person you try to emulate growing up, but as you get closer to the NBA and you see how far-fetched that is. That guy is 34, 35 years old and leading the league in scoring, still doing it. So big ups to him and you gotta just take it one day at a time.
"It's a goal of mine to play at that stature, be mentioned in the same breath, but at the same time reality set in like, 'Hey, it took a lot of time for him to get there.' So that's one thing I'm looking forward to, see where this thing ends up."
His admiration for Bryant made Golden State's first exhibition game against the Lakers in Fresno all the more special, or at least significant, for Bazemore. Coming face to face with his idol for the first time, Bazemore had to do something that a few young players talk about in putting aside their emotions and just focusing on playing the game.
"He like runs out and I was like, 'Oh man, that's Kobe.' As the game goes on, every time he's on the court people are like, 'Kobe! Oh my god!' And I'm like, 'I'm off this guy. Whatever.'...He standing there like he don't hear it; he know he hear it! So I'm like, man, this guy, I'm off him. So at the end of the day, if you showing love out there to him on the floor, he not going to take it easy on you. He's gonna be like, 'Come here, gimme the ball! I got a fan on me!'"
Soon Bazemore will know whether the hard work has paid off, at least with the Warriors. The entirety of the experience, including going back and forth to Santa Cruz and working with an experienced NBA player in Mark Jackson, have helped him gets his skills to a point where at the very least he deserves a shot to show continued improvement and eventually have a real hand in the Warriors defeating Kobe's Lakers.
"Now he's an opponent, he's in our division, we're chasing a playoff run so whatever with him; good luck to him but I'm a Golden State Warrior."