As he heads into his third NBA season, the clock is ticking for Darius Bazley. The former first-round pick has been solid to this point in his career, but will have to make quite the leap if he wants to continue to be a key piece of the team going forward.
Bazley was selected No. 23 overall in the 2019 NBA Draft. While not all of his peers will be extended next summer, the bulk of that class is extension eligible and could be earning new contracts.
The Thunder have quite a bit of flexibility with Bazley’s contract over the next two years, but the 2021-22 season could be the most important of all for him.
The 6-foot-9 forward has a team option worth roughly $4.3 million for the 2022-23 season and a qualifying offer of around $6.2 million for the 2023-24 season.
With that in mind, Oklahoma City will be using the upcoming season to evaluate Bazley’s future with the team. Will he blossom into a solidified NBA starter, or will he prove to just be a solid bench piece for the long haul?
The answer should get more clear in the 2021-22 season, as three years of a sample size is generally enough to have a good idea of what a player’s ceiling might be. If Bazley takes a step and projects to be a cornerstone piece, he’ll be on track for an extension with the Thunder long-term. If not, he could be a trade chip before the end of his contract, similar to his former teammate Hamidou Diallo.
As Oklahoma City continues to accumulate talent over the next few seasons, the competition will continue to increase for Bazley. The Thunder will likely have top-ten draft picks in the next two drafts, meaning a star-caliber forward could be walking in the door.
As the years go on, Bazley will have to continue to prove himself, increasing the pressure to perform.
Last season with the Thunder, he did take a step forward. As he moved into a full-time starter role and played more minutes, he improved in nearly every statistical category. However, his efficiency was nearly as low as his rookie season which raises questions about him being a top option for the Thunder long-term.
While he averaged 13.7 points and 7.2 rebounds per contest, he shot just 39.6 percent from the floor, 29.0 percent from three and 70.2 percent from the free throw line. These types of shooting splits won’t be acceptable moving forward if he wants to prove he’s capable of being a starter on a playoff-caliber team.
With the perfect NBA frame and the intangibles Bazley has, it wouldn’t be surprising to see him become one of the most improved players in the league this season. He’ll also get plenty of opportunity given the state of the rebuilding Thunder.
Either way, it’s the most important season of Bazley’s NBA career as he enters the final guaranteed season of his contract. The results of the 2021-22 season could truly impact his future with the team and whether he’s extended or traded.