Bazemore on Atlanta: ‘I would love to return here’

The Hawks have been down this road before.

The team signed a player with big upside to a two-year deal, got him into their player-development system, put him in the starting lineup and watched as he blossomed. All that was followed by the risk losing the player when he became an unrestricted free agent.

Exit DeMarre Carroll. Enter Kent Bazemore.

In 2013, the Hawks signed Carroll to a $5 million contract. He started at small forward for two seasons before leaving last summer to play for the Raptors on a four-year, $60 million deal.

In 2014, the Hawks signed Bazemore to a $4 million contract. He replaced Carroll in the starting lineup this season. Now, he enters unrestricted free agency.

According to the NBA’s Collective Bargaining Agreement, players who sign contracts for less than four years are not eligible for extensions. They must enter free agency at the conclusion of their deal. Last summer, Paul Millsap and Carroll both were unrestricted. Millsap returned and Carroll left.

“I would love to return here,” Bazemore said this week during an exit interview following the Hawks’ playoff loss to the Cavaliers. “I think the past two years I’ve taken a tremendous leap. Not only my professional year but personally. I’m growing more into myself and figuring out life. This place as a special place in my heart. I grew up right up the street in North Carolina. Super close to home. Not close enough. Has its perks here. The weather is great. Golf is great. God is great.”

It remains to be seen whether he will turn his time with the Hawks into a contract as lucrative as the one signed by Carroll. However, there figures to be plenty of suitors for the still-developing 26-year-old Bazemore.

In his first season with the Hawks, Bazemore averaged 5.2 points, 3.0 rebounds and one rebound in 17.7 minutes over 75 games. In the just completed season, Bazemore averaged 11.6 points, 5.1 rebounds and 2.3 assists in 27.8 minutes over 75 games, including 68 starts.

“I go back and I saw it happen with DeMarre Carroll, his growth,” Millsap said. “Kent Bazemore came down the same road. Given an opportunity and being put in the right situation, he strived and he did great. We love Kent and his personality and what he brings to this team. We definitely would like to have him back.”

Bazemore enters free agency with teammate Al Horford. Late-season additions Kirk Hinrich and Kris Humphries also are free agents. Hawks president of basketball operations and coach Mike Budenholzer said the importance and contributions of Bazemore were “significant.”

Bazemore went undrafted out of Old Dominion, but got a chance with the Warriors and did several stints in the NBA Development League. He was traded to the Lakers in early 2014 and got a chance at regular playing time late in the season before a foot injury ended his season. The Hawks took a chance — and gave a chance — on Bazemore. Now, both have a decision to make this summer.

Bazemore said he understands the importance of the next few months. He will concentrate on his game for he believes he has a lot of room to grow before he reaches his ceiling.

“I just going to keep forcing the envelope,” Bazemore said. “I don’t really put any limitations on myself. I just work. This summer is going to be pivotal for me because last summer I was coming off an injury, and I had to shut it down a little bit. But this year, you finish the year healthy, that’s one of the most important things. I have a few nicks and bumps throughout the season. But for the most part, I played all but I think six regular-season games. My body is kind of used to the grind.

“I can add to it, get my explosiveness back. I couldn’t really play above the rim like I wanted to this year and am super capable of. Body being weak, your shot comes in and out. You can’t really get the lift you need on a night-in, night-out basis. Those are things I can really count on this summer, getting stronger, getting ready to get the 82-game grind again.

Now, there are questions to answer. Where and for how much will Bazemore play next season?