Antonio Blakeney gets the call to the big show

He’s finally back Tuesday when the Bulls are in Toronto after we heard so much about his play this summer, how hard he’s worked and how much he could add to this young Bulls team.

Oh, yeah, Bobby Portis will be back, also.

“It’s a good situation here for me because of the direction we are going in, developing young talent,” said Antonio Blakeney. “We are all getting better, and we have some great vets with Rolo, Quincy Pondexter, Justin Holiday. I feel I’m in a situation where I can learn and improve my weaknesses. I’ve been scoring my whole life. The thing the Bulls have been focusing on with me, the defense and concepts, learning a good shot from a bad shot. If I get all that done. I can be a complete player in this league.

“It felt good coming out and being able to practice with the team again,” Blakeney said after morning practice in Toronto. “I feel like I’ve been playing well. I want to show every day what I can do with the ball in my hands, with the ball not in my hands.”

Now it’s in the hands of Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg.

Blakeney is the Bulls Summer League sensation who earned his way into a two-way G-league contract and lit up the league with 35 points and five threes in his Windy City Bulls debut Saturday. That came after Blakeney scored 33 in Windy City’s one exhibition game.

So with the sprained ankle injury to David Nwaba Saturday that could keep him out a month, the Bulls called back Blakeney. And Hoiberg said Blakeney, as he did in training camp, lit up practice Monday with his offense and scoring.

And at 30th in the league in scoring and shooting, Hoiberg knows the Bulls could use more scoring.

Could it be Blakeney?

“He’s played really well,” said Hoiberg. “He’s had 30-plus points in the two games Windy City has played. He had a really, really good practice with us yesterday. If we have to get him out there to steal some minutes if we are struggling to score, which we have been this year, obviously, we need to have Antonio ready to go out there and put pressure on the rim. He really is one of the few guys we have who can create his own shot and get by guys and get into the paint; he showed that yesterday.

“He’s a guy who can come out and score in bunches,” Hoiberg emphasized. “He had a few instances in the preseason when he did show his skill set. We’re confident in Antonio and if we need a scoring punch out there we feel he can provide that.”

The Bulls story for Tuesday is the regular season debut of Portis following his eight-game suspension following his engagement with teammate Nikola Mirotic, the latter who remains out with facial injuries. But the more significant contribution could be from Blakeney, who has scoring and shooting abilities that exceed perhaps anyone on the roster now other than Lauri Markkanen.

Antonio Blakeney warms up pregame

Blakeney was arguably the team’s most effective offensive player in the preseason training camp practices. But as an undrafted player with a two-way G-league contract, he slipped down the priority list to start the preseason. When he did play, he averaged fewer than 10 minutes per game, and often only in late game situations. He averaged five points and shot 25 percent on threes, often in the game in the most ragged times.

The new two-way contracts allow a player to be with the NBA team 45 days for an expanded roster. Ryan Arcidiacono is the Bulls other two-way player and remains with Windy City. Nwaba, who is more a driver and slasher, was giving the Bulls an offensive boost working his way into the starting lineup. With his injury, it made sense to add Blakeney.

But Blakeney comes in at the bottom of the roster, and it is a difficult to score if you are not in the game. But his abilities, especially with an offense-challenged team like this Bulls group, suggest there should be opportunities. Of course, then the issue is in place of whom: Denzel Valentine? Paul Zipser? Kris Dunn?  Though at 2-6, no one’s feelings should be hurt that badly.

Blakeney’s story is not unlike a lot of players who just don’t quite fit.

Until they do.

Like the Triple A baseball slugger, Blakeney is too good for the G-league, and not good enough for the NBA yet. He knows from not being drafted about being overlooked.

“We’re confident in Antonio and if we need a scoring punch out there we feel he can provide that.”

– Coach Fred Hoiberg on Antonio Blakeney

“I worked out for 17 teams before the draft plus the Bulls,” Blakeney said. “I feel I played pretty well in a lot of workouts. The reason (for not getting drafted) possibly is we (at LSU) didn’t have a great year my sophomore season. We were 10-21, so there was a lot of bad talk about my program. Teams talk about winning programs. Even though I’ve been a winner all my life, AAU, high school. I just decided to come out and I came from a losing season, so that probably hurt. A lot of guys go undrafted and still have great careers in the league.”

Blakeney was supposed to be part of yet another LSU basketball revival, the scorer to play with 2016 No. 1 overall pick Ben Simmons. He was Florida Mr. Basketball, a McDonald’s all-American who was the star of the game in Chicago when he played with Simmons. But it was a poorly coached, dysfunctional team with losing records. Simmons’ talent overwhelmed the record. Blakeney’s couldn’t quite despite being a solid 6-4 and about 190 pounds. He is quick to shoot; very quick. There weren’t many shots he didn’t think he could make and he took them. He wasn’t much aware of teammates on the court.

Though it’s still a game where they count up the shots that went in at the end.

Blakeney makes a lot of them. He has a unique ability, even when defended, to find a space for a shot.

Still, not being drafted can be unnerving. Are you really good enough? Did you misjudge yourself?

“Of course you have to take a look in the mirror and realize there are things you have to keep working on in your game,” said Blakeney about not being drafted. “Get better; everyone has weaknesses. Some of mine were defense, being smarter on the floor, using my athleticism all the time. So they are things I have been trying to work on every day.

Antonio Blakeney soars for the layup against Toronto

“I’ve been a scorer my whole life,” said Blakeney, who averaged just under 30 in high school. “Even in middle school when I first started playing, I had a knack to score. But now it’s about learning to do it in an NBA system, in the flow of the offense; learning from other players on the team. Obviously after the draft going undrafted makes you worry a little bit because you feel you should be drafted. So I worried a little when my name wasn’t called. But I always had faith, always believed in myself and my work ethic, that things would work out.”

Blakeney accepted an invite from the Bulls for Summer League, and when both Dunn and then Cameron Payne left, he got his chance and was the team’s best scorer. Now he’s back with a team that desperately needs offense.

“It may be a harder path than some other people, but it’s the path God led me to and I am supposed to take and I am fine with it,” said Blakeney. 21. “I work every day and try to get better. I am fine with the path I’m going on now. Everybody can’t be a lottery pick; there have to be undrafted guys like Wesley Matthews. Those guys still do well. It’s just my path to be one of those better players.”

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