In a sense, stories like Kent Bazemore's are why we watch summer league even as we acknowledge that what occurs there is generally meaningless.
Or, put another way, junkies don't necessarily watch summer league because it's great basketball but - at least in part - because they're hoping to "find" The Next Big Thing or know about the next big thing before anyone else does.
And Bazemore was a diamond deep in the rough, if you define that by the very basic standard of making a NBA roster after going undrafted.
Many of us didn't even know who Bazemore was until he showed up on the Golden State Warriors' summer league roster in Las Vegas last summer and even then nobody could've known that he'd become the phenomenon that he did. Not that undrafted players making rosters are unheard of - Bazemore shouldn't even be considered the best undrafted player the Warriors have had - but a 6-foot-5 guard who openly admits that he needs to work on his jumpshot and isn't a natural ball handler would seem like a stronger candidate for the D-League than a NBA roster.
To earn minutes, it was obvious that he'd need to work on both of those weaknesses, which wasn't exactly going to be easy.
"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 a late-December game playing for the Santa Cruz Warriors. "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."
But one of the things that always stood out about Bazemore having followed him in summer league and the D-League as well as watching him on the Golden State Warriors' bench was his attitude - he was always upbeat, willing to crack jokes with media during post-game interviews, and yet came off as one of the more earnest guys on the roster regardless of where he was playing.
"I think you could probably make any excuse in the book about our travel and having to play, but it's just something you gotta do, especially me being in my situation not being guaranteed with the deadline coming up, this is just something I want to take advantage of just to show that I'm staying ready," Bazemore said after shuttling between Oakland and Santa Cruz for a New Year's Day game.
Without even getting into the whole Bazemoring thing, it was obvious that he was a guy who seemed to appreciate what a privilege it is to even have the opportunity to compete at the high levels, perhaps because of how hard he had to work just to get to that point. And in a sports world full of attention-grabbing prima donas it was initially just refreshing.
How we then evaluate Kent Bazemore's first season depends upon what exactly it is that we value: if you begin with what your expectations were, I can't imagine that anyone was so optimistic about what he'd contribute in his rookie year that he managed to disappoint. If you're concerned that he only played 4.4 minutes per game in 61 games this season as an undrafted rookie who played his way onto the team by coming up big in summer league...lighten up?
I mean, I suppose you could judge Bazemore on his potential to contribute minutes at the backup point guard spot - it's obviously not his natural position and even he acknowledges he has substantial work to do before he's able to get big minutes in that role. But where he has really shown potential is on the defensive end. He never really played consistently enough for any given statistic to hold much weight, but he showed quite clearly that his athleticism, length and work rate can have an impact on the defensive end during the second round of the playoffs against the San Antonio Spurs.
Brian McCormick breaks down Bazemore's outstanding defensive play at the end of Game 1 against the Spurs.
If you're a basketball fan with a soul, you have to appreciate what Bazemore represents: his passion for the game displayed on the court or the sidelines was a reminder that no matter how much we obsess and agonize over the day-to-day events of this franchise, it's ultimately still a game that's supposed to be fun and best enjoyed rooting for players who appear to love the game. Teammates said throughout the season that it was inspiring and it's And as a surprisingly prominent member of a team that represented the beginning of an earlier-than-expected revival for a woeful franchise, he might have become the personification of excitement about a new day.
If you have no soul, then he was a cheap defensive option who almost had one of the most significant baskets in Warriors playoff history.
Given the expectations, it was hard not to get behind this guy this past season. Unfortunately that probably won't help him keep his spot on the roster this season: with first round pick Nemanja Nedovic expected to come in addition to fellow undrafted returner Scott Machado and others in summer league, Bazemore could be right back to competing for a spot on the team during this year's time in Vegas.
But I wouldn't expect him to approach it any less enthusiastically than he did last season, which is exactly why it will be easy to root for him.