There is a reason Kent Bazemore is back to his old athletic self

Atlanta Hawks' Kent Bazemore during the first half of the NBA basketball game against the New York Knicks, Sunday, Feb. 4, 2018, in New York. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)
Atlanta Hawks' Kent Bazemore during the first half of the NBA basketball game against the New York Knicks, Sunday, Feb. 4, 2018, in New York. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)

Credit: Seth Wenig

Credit: Seth Wenig

Kent Bazemore was under heavy scrutiny. A four-year, $70 million contract will bring that to an up-and-coming NBA player. When the Hawks guard didn’t exactly live up to expectations last season, it was easy to point to the pressure of playing under such a deal as the primary reason.

Perhaps not.

Bazemore is putting up career-high statistics this season while still playing under the same contract -- with one big exception.

He is healthy.

Bazemore, 28, hinted on a recent Road Trippin’ podcast, which he records with teammate Mike Muscala, that he had his knee “worked on” two summers ago. Bazemore confirmed to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that he underwent an arthroscopic procedure to clean up the meniscus in his right knee during the summer after he signed the new contract. The procedure, not publicly disclosed, became an issue for a player dependent on his athleticism.

“Anytime you start the season behind the eight ball it’s going to be tough to get ahead of the curve,” Bazemore said. “A ton of my game now is playing hard, energy, athleticism. When you don’t have that you lose a little bit of yourself. You are a shell of yourself. I couldn’t figure out another way to get it done last year.”

Bazemore averaged 11.0 points, 3.2 rebounds, 2.4 assists and 26.9 minutes as he still appeared in 73 games, including 64 starts, last season. He missed nine games, seven with what was listed as a right knee bone bruise and two as a sore right knee.

Bazemore is averaging 13.0 points, 4.0 rebounds, 3.6 assists, 1.6 steals and 27.9 minutes this season in 58 games, all starts. He missed his first game of the season when he was rested Wednesday ahead of the All-Star break. All the listed stats are career-highs except for the points per game, which is just 0.1 shy of his best. He also has a .494 effective field-goal percentage, just .004 shy of his best.

The numbers have come with an expanded role. Dennis Schroder and Bazemore are two of the longest tenured Hawks players, along with Muscala, as the organization has watched all five starters from the Eastern Conference finals team leave in the past two seasons in a rebuild. Bazemore is no longer a role player. He’s a top player. He’s a leader.

“His energy, his spirit is a huge part of who we are,” coach Mike Budenholzer said. “He's doing a great job with his leadership, his voice and his spirit. He’s just really good.”

Bazemore leads the Hawks in steals. He is second in points and assists, behind Schroder in both categories, and fifth in rebounds.

His 93 steals are eighth and his 1.6 steals per game are 12th in the NBA.

Bazemore has two game-winning shots this season. He made a jumper over Anthony Davis for a 94-93 victory over the Pelicans on Jan. 17. He made another jump shot in the closing seconds that led to a 99-96 victory over the Knicks on Feb. 4.

“Now I’ve been working on my game and my body,” Bazemore said. “That’s been my main focus to be available for every game. I’ve done that to this point. I’ve been able to do that. Now, it’s just the mental piece, being able to be mentally strong and ready to go against the wild, wild west.”

Bazemore remains grounded in how far his NBA career has come, even with the recent scrutiny. He wore a custom pair of shoes for a home game against the Cavaliers last week. Included in the design was, again, the number 499. Bazemore continues to reference his ranking in an ESPN list of the top 500 NBA players headed into the 2012-13 season when he was with the Warriors. The outside of the right shoe was a the symbol for Ebenezer Baptist Church, the congregation of Martin Luther King Jr. The outside of the left shoe was written #499. Across the top of each was written #TrueToAtlanta.

Bazemore doesn’t want to forget where he’s been and where he’s going.