Bazemore gets his shot — as a Hawks starter

Kent Bazemore, Atlanta Hawks

Hawks will start Kent Bazemore at small forward. (Curtis Compton / AJC)

The decision has been made.

The biggest question facing the Hawks this preseason was who would replace DeMarre Carroll as the team’s starting small forward. The answer is Kent Bazemore.

When the Hawks tip off the 2015-16 NBA season Tuesday night against the Detroit Pistons at Philips Arena, Bazemore join Jeff Teague, Kyle Korver, Paul Millsap and Al Horford in the starting lineup. Coach Mike Budenholzer confirmed his decision following Monday’s practice.

“It’s a blessing to be out there with four All-Stars,” Bazemore said. “It’s a dream come true. We’ve got a long season ahead of us and, obviously, I have some big shoes to fill. Let’s get after it.”

Bazemore spoke having not yet been told of his new role. When Budenholzer made the announcement later he joked, “I might have to make a phone call now.”

The decision to put Bazemore in the starting lineup was not a surprise following training camp and exhibition games. Bazemore appeared in five games and started all with the four regulars. He sat out exhibition games against the Dallas Mavericks and the finale against the Pistons, as all five starters did not play in the final tuneup. The Hawks are also bringing Thabo Sefolosha along slowly in his recovery from a broken right leg and ligament damage in his ankle.

The 6-foot-5 Bazemore averaged 10.4 points, 3.6 rebounds and 1.0 assists in 22.2 minutes during the preseason. In last week’s full rehearsal against the Memphis Grizzlies, Bazemore had 18 points, two rebounds and two assists in 31 minutes. He was 7 of 10 from the field, including 2 of 3 from 3-point range.

Bazemore reflected Monday on how far he has come in three years. As a senior at Old Dominion he was arrested for DUI. He was arrested again minutes before a game against Mercer, what was to be his last collegiate contest, for not complying with the conditions of his suspended sentence when he failed to complete an alcohol safety course on schedule. He went from zero to nine pre-draft workouts after his agent, Austin Walton, convince teams he was an NBA quality defender. Still, Bazemore went undrafted. He landed a spot with the Golden State Warriors Summer League team, which turned into a contract. There were 61 games in his rookie year of 2012-13. The following year he split the season between the Warriors and the Los Angeles Lakers after a trade. Bazemore signed a two-year contract with the Hawks last summer.

“It’s definitely surreal,” Bazemore said. “… It’s just been a great ride, to say the least, to come from those kinds of depths to be here, smiling and talking about it. You definitely have to count your blessings and keep working. Keep working at the things that got you here. My work ethic, belief in myself and belief from others around me has helped me get to this stage.”

Bazemore appeared in 75 games, 10 starts, for the Hawks last season. He averaged 5.2 points, 3.0 rebounds and 1.0 assists in 17.6 minutes. His role expanded late in the regular season and into the playoffs with season-ending injuries to Sefolosha and Kyle Korver.

“He is one of those guys who brings an edge, an energy, and hopefully it fits well with our team,” Budenholzer said. “We love how competitive his is and the edge he plays with. It really has a big impact on the group.”

Sefolosha will see significant time off the bench at small forward as he continues his return from injury. Whether Sefolosha eventually works his way into the starting lineup remains to be seen. When the season starts Tuesday, the job belongs to Bazemore.

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