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What the Phoenix Suns can expect from new trade arrival Darius Bazley

Gerald Bourguet Avatar
February 10, 2023

Adding Kevin Durant was a monster move for the Phoenix Suns, but they weren’t done with the 2023 NBA Trade Deadline after their blockbuster deal. On Thursday, The Athletic’s Shams Charania broke the news that the Suns were trading Dario Saric and a second-round pick to the Oklahoma City Thunder for Darius Bazley.

The trade was made official Thursday evening, and a team source told PHNX Sports that the second-round pick in question is a 2029 selection. In a statement, new owner Mat Ishbia said, “As we continue to build one of the best organizations in sports, we’re excited to add a young talent like Darius to an already dynamic and deep roster.”

Bazley will wear No. 55 in Phoenix.

How KD’s arrival impacts the Suns is the biggest topic to dive into (and rest assured, we’ll be doing that in-depth next week), but for those who haven’t watched very many OKC games this year, Bazley is the biggest question mark.

So what can the Suns expect from their new arrival? Let’s take a look at where he can help defensively and where he’ll need to prove himself on offense.

Darius Bazley: The basics

At this stage of their careers, Saric is the better player. Super Dario had been rounding into form lately after shaking off the rust from missing an entire season with a torn ACL, and the ball-handling, basketball I.Q. and floor-spacing he provided will be missed.

However, there’s no question the Suns needed help on the wing after trading away Mikal Bridges, Cam Johnson and Jae Crowder, and at 22 years old, Bazley represents a bit a flier who will ease Phoenix’s luxury tax bill. Going from Saric’s $9.2 million expiring contract to Bazley’s $4.3 million deal may not seem like much, but for a team in the tax, it provides pretty big savings:

Bazley is a restricted free agent after this season, so the Suns will have limited time to see whether he’ll be worth re-signing.

“I view it as an opportunity to come in and help a really good team win more games than they already have,” he said. “Obviously a playoff team looking to make a big push to win a championship. So any way I fit in and can be able to help, that’s kinda how I’m looking at it.”

Now in his fourth NBA season after being drafted 23rd overall back in 2019, Bazley is a 6-foot-9 forward who plays like a big on defense and a wing on offense. This season, he averaged 5.4 points and 3.4 rebounds in 15.4 minutes per game for the Thunder.

Those numbers point to his dwindling role in OKC. Last year, Bazley averaged 10.8 points, 6.3 rebounds and 1.0 blocks in 27.9 minutes per game, and the year prior, he put up 13.7 points and 7.2 rebounds in 31.2 minutes per game. Unfortunately, his efficiency didn’t warrant that type of extended playing time, since he shot 42.2 percent and 39.6 percent from the floor in those seasons, respectively, while failing to crack 30 percent shooting from 3 in either one.

“He’s a young guy that just hasn’t found his consistent niche, if you will, in the NBA,” coach Monty Williams said. “We look at his body, we look at his skill-set, we look at how he was viewed when he came out and some of the early success he had in OKC, you have to ask yourself, ‘What can we do to help him get on a path that’s more consistent?’”

Bazley’s limited opportunities this season forced him to take on a “less is more” approach, which can be a struggle for a young player in a contract year — a trend that reared its head in numerous areas on the offensive end.

Areas for improvement on offense

Bazley never projected to be a high-volume scorer; he’s reached 20 points in just 20 of his 221 career games, and while his frame, length and athleticism would normally dictate he plays the 4-spot, he really functions as more of a wing on the offensive end.

The biggest positive there is Bazley has made 40 percent of his 3s this season. However, that’s come on only 45 attempts, and his long-range attempts shrinking from 5.2 per game in 2019-20 to 3.9 a night last year to just 1.3 per game this year is telling.

Still, if you leave Bazley open enough to set his feet and load up his release, he’s capable as a standstill shooter:

Bazley having a functional handle is both a blessing and a curse, especially for a big that doesn’t really excel in the areas one would normally expect from a player at his position.

According to The BBall Index, he ranks in the 21st percentile in points per possession on post-ups. He’s not great in the pick-and-roll either, ranking in the 35th percentile in points per possession as the roll man.

Perhaps playing with pick-and-roll savants like Durant, Chris Paul and Devin Booker will help there, but Bazley’s biggest problems are his lack of feel when he catches the ball on the short roll, as well as his general lack of touch around the basket. Bazley ranks in the 16th percentile in rim shot-making and the 50th percentile in field goal percentage at the rim, shooting just 58.3 percent on those looks.

As the clip shows below, his finishing on drives relies on brute force, using a strong shoulder to create separation as defenders bounce off him. The problem is, his touch around the basket is less than refined, especially against stronger or longer defenders who can absorb the contact and still challenge Bazley’s shots:

As you can see, Bazley is fairly aggressive attacking the paint. He ranks in the 69th percentile in drives per 75 possessions and the 86th percentile in rim shot creation. The problem is he doesn’t quite have the handles, speed or touch to finish over the trees, which is somewhat surprising for a player with his athleticism and leaping ability.

Bazley gets blocked a lot around the rim, displaying a curiously low release point that doesn’t fully utilize the length he puts to good use on the defensive end. His tunnel vision doesn’t help either; Bazley ranks in the 28th percentile in drive passout rate and the 26th percentile in drive assist rate.

Again, that handle of his would be useful if he knew how to employ it in the short roll, but because he has the mindset of a wing slasher, it gets him into trouble at times. The majority of his turnovers this season came from an ambitious spin move that’s a little too quick for him to control the ball…or account for help defenders shading over to pick at it.

Bazley makes the right reads on offense when he does pass, but sometimes he just puts a little too much zip on the ball. He’s also been whistled on a few travels for making his move before putting the ball down, and watching the film of his turnovers, the portrait of a guy who’s playing every minute like he’s about to get cut starts to come into focus:

A guy that ranks in the 11th percentile in points per possession on isolation plays probably shouldn’t also rank in the 52nd percentile in isos per 75 possessions. That’s especially true when one notices he’s effective off the ball, ranking in the 70th percentile in points per possession off cuts.

In Phoenix, the Suns will be hoping Darius Bazley can rein in some of those tendencies. If he can’t turn that desperation for minutes on a rebuilding team into knowing and accepting his role on a contender, it’s unlikely he’ll see the floor when Monty Williams’ rotation shortens up.

D stands for Darius Bazley’s defense

Much like Josh Okogie, if Darius Bazley can just be decent on offense, his defense will get the chance to really shine. His inability to utilize his 7-foot wingspan as a finisher around the rim is puzzling, but rest assured he uses it well on the defensive end.

With Bridges gone, the Suns lost their best point-of-attack defender who allowed CP3 to hide on that end and ensure Booker wasn’t tasked with carrying the offense and defending opponents’ best guard or wing. Bazley won’t be working his way into the starting lineup by filling that Bridges role, but he can make up for some of the defensive versatility Phoenix lost.

His greatest asset in Phoenix is how he handles himself on the perimeter when teams try to switch him onto guards. He may only rank in the 61st percentile in on-ball perimeter defense, but that’s not shabby for a low-minutes reserve. If it weren’t for the fact that he spends most of his time guarding power forwards and centers, Bazley’s defensive metrics would feel fairly similar to the role Mikal Bridges had:

  • 81st percentile in defensive miles per 75 possessions
  • 81st percentile in percentage of time spent on primary ball-handlers
  • 83rd percentile in percentage of time spent on athletic finishers
  • 89th percentile in defensive position versatility
  • 97th percentile in defensive role versatility

It’s amusing watching guards target Bazley with a switch, try to use dribble moves to get him off-balance, realize he’s not budging, and settle for a step-back jumper that gets blocked, much to their dismay. Bazley closes out fast and gets a piece of a lot of them, ranking in the 97th percentile in 3-point contests per 75 possessions:

He’s no slouch around the rim either. Despite typically playing the 4-spot, Bazley is an underrated rim protector, fully employing his hops and wingspan to meet players at the apex when they attack the basket.

Bazley ranks in the 92nd percentile in percentage of rim shots contested and the 91st percentile in blocks per 75 possessions. He’s holding opponents to 9.0 percent worse shooting than expected at the rim, which ranks in the NBA’s 96th percentile.

Whether he’s sticking with a driving ball-handler from the perimeter and contesting or coming over to help on rolls and cuts, Bazley makes attacking the paint a lot more challenging:

He’s also got good instincts, targeting passes in the pick-and-roll or as a help defender like a free safety. Not only can he anticipate and read the ball-handler’s eyes to step into passing lanes out of nowhere, but he also employs that massive wingspan to make up the ground quicker than expected with Go-Go-Gadget extension.

Bazley ranks in the 67th percentile in passing lane defense and the 83rd percentile in steals per 75 possessions, and it’s easy to see why:

“if you look at him — 6’9”, long arms, athletic, can make a shot, has defensive capabilities to affect the game — it’s like, how do you help him become a part of your program?” Williams said. “It may take us a while to figure that out, and we hope we can, but he’s got some tools and attributes that not many NBA players have, and we’ll try to figure out how we can help him.”

Ultimately, his rawness on the offensive end may keep him from carving out a spot in the Suns’ playoff rotation. Torrey Craig or T.J. Warren are much safer bets to secure the Suns’ fifth starting spot, or even a player Phoenix hasn’t added yet, since there are plenty of worthy candidates on the buyout market.

Even so, Darius Bazley is young, under team control as a restricted free agent and could help in a pinch if the Suns need a more versatile, defensive-minded big who can protect the rim and even log minutes as a small-ball 5. He won’t have much time to prove himself on a contender that just added Kevin Durant, but this type of upside play makes sense for a team trying to shave some money off its luxury tax payment.

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