By CODY WORSHAM | Tiger Rag Editor
Class is out for Antonio Blakeney.
The now-former Tiger didn’t sweat finals week this May, placing his pursuit of a Sports Administration degree from LSU on hold for a crack at the NBA.
The irony is, he’s never studied harder.
In between two-a-day skill sessions, an individually-catered strength and conditioning program, and touring the country for workouts with NBA teams, Blakeney’s buried in film, trying to improve, he says, “my overall understanding of every part of the game, defense and offense.” He devours clips of Houston’s Patrick Beverley and Boston’s Avery Bradley, a 3-and-D perimeter specialist who both shares a set of initials with Blakeney and, more importantly, typifies the two-way play NBA general managers desire out of shooting guards in the modern game.
What Blakeney isn’t studying, however, is the daily deluge of mock drafts that accompany the months and days leading into the draft, few of which – if any – project him as a selection. His focus is singular and inward.
“I look at where I’m at,” Blakeney told Tiger Rag in early May. “I’m not worried about nobody else, or who’s on the draft board. I don’t know who is on draft board. I don’t know if I’m on (mock drafts) or if I’m not on them. I don’t look at them at all. I know where I’m at as a player. I know what I can do. I know what I need to work on. Me and my team felt like I was ready to make this step. I know I can do certain things on the court as an NBA player. That’s the main thing.”
Blakeney, who scored 948 points in two seasons at LSU and earned Second Team All-SEC honors in 2016-17, bypassed his final two years of collegiate eligibility when he signed with agent Aaron Turner of Verus Management this spring and declared for the NBA Draft. It was, as early entrant often decisions are, controversial among fans, some of whom thought Blakeney (and, selfishly, LSU) would benefit from another collegiate season. Though he saw upsticks across the board statistically as a sophomore – from 12.6 points per games to 17.2, from 42.5 percent shooting to 45.8, and from 33.5 percent on 3s to 35.8 – Blakeney enters a loaded class ranked 85th by DraftExpress.com in a draft in which only 60 players are selected.
The decision, met skeptically by some outsiders, was a natural one for the former McDonald’s All-American who became the first Tiger since Marcus Thornton in 2008 to post six straight games of 20+ points. Despite the team’s 10-21 record, Blakeney saw enough improvement in his own game to take the leap.
“After the season, I just looked back at my growth from my freshman to sophomore year,” Blakeney says. “Even though the year didn’t go as well for the team as me or anyone expected, I just thought, me personally, I was ready to take that next step in my career.”
Where that step takes him, Blakeney is unsure. He was bypassed for participation in the NBA Draft Combine, which means it’s all but certain he’ll fall out of the first round of the draft, where contracts are guaranteed for selections. It’s likelier that Blakeney is picked in the second round or pursues an undrafted free agent deal, neither of which comes with a penny of guaranteed cash. Fail to go in the first round, and you’re looking at trying to make camp rosters, playing in the NBA Developmental League, or heading overseas.
IF THAT SOUNDS like a long road ahead, that’s because it is. The good news, though, is that road is now well-mapped and has become increasingly navigable in recent years, particularly stateside. The NBA’s new Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) invested more money into the D-League, which has become popular enough to earn a sponsorship from Gatorade and will be re-branded as the G-League beginning in 2017-18.
One of the most beneficial new facets of the CBA to fringe prospects like Blakeney is “two-way contracts.” These deals allows franchises, previously limited to 15-man rosters, to sign two additional players whose rights they can retain while keeping them with a G-League affiliate. Two-way players can be called up to the NBA in case of injury, or sent to the G-League to get more minutes, giving teams more roster and developmental flexibility. Best of all, for the players: these two-way deals pay at least $75,000 and up to $275,000, a substantial raise on the former $26,000 max salary for developmental league players.
[perfectpullquote align=”full” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””] “I’m not worried about nobody else, or who’s on the draft board. I don’t know who is on draft board. I don’t know if I’m on (mock drafts) or if I’m not on them. I don’t look at them at all. I know where I’m at as a player. I know what I can do.” – Antonio Blakeney [/perfectpullquote]
The CBA also introduced provisions for franchises with G-League affiliates (25 of the NBA’s 30 teams, as of last season) to sign four “affiliate players” each. Such players will earn $50,000 guaranteed for participating in preseason camps, plus up to an additional $26,000 in G-League salary. In total, that’s 160 extra rosters spots across the NBA paying at least $75,000 per year for prospective pro hoopers across the country.
This, at a time when NBA franchises are relying on developmental players like never before. At the beginning of the 2016-17 season, a record 30 percent of NBA players (135 in total) had D-League experience – up from just 18.7 percent (84 total) in 2012-13. By season’s end, that number was up to an astonishing 44 percent (199 total) of NBA players who were D-League vets. The names include former LSU stars Garrett Temple (Sacramento Kings) and Tim Quarterman (Portland Trailbazers), key playoff cogs Jonathan Simmons and Danny Green of the Spurs, future max-contract players like C.J. McCollum (Portland) and Rudy Gobert (Utah Jazz), and current max man Hasaan Whiteside (Miami Heat).
Part of that boost in simple economics. Star players are making more money and, therefore, demanding more cap space than ever before, so franchises need young, affordable talent to fill out their rosters without going over the salary cap and entering luxury tax territory. In today’s game, where teams need at least three max-level players to make title runs, cheap, young assets are invaluable.
Another part is simple talent. As the NBA has invested more in its developmental league, players like Blakeney and his pre-draft workout partner, former D-Leaguer and current Phoenix Sun and 2017 NBA All-Star Slam Dunk Competition competitor Derrick Jones, are more willing to shirk larger European contracts for the chance to play basketball in the States. The initial money might not be as substantial, but it’s improving, and there’s no exchange rate on the opportunity to play under the noses of NBA scouts night-in, night-out.
IF BLAKENEY LEFT LSU at the ‘wrong time,’ to paraphrase critics’ sentiments, then he left at the right wrong time. He enters the league at a moment when the market has never been better for late-second round or undrafted picks.
Coming out of Oak Ridge High School in Orlando as one of the best players in the 2015 class, a five-star like fellow ex-LSU standout and 2016 No. 1 overall pick Ben Simmons, Blakeney might’ve imagined a different entry into the NBA, just as he might’ve imagined a different, more successful tenure as a Tiger. His freshman season began with Sweet 16 hopes and ended with no postseason play whatsoever. His sophomore campaign saw LSU lose a school-record 15 straight games.
Failure was infrequent before his arrival in Baton Rouge, but as he enters the most high-stakes months of his career, Blakeney has turned the grind into growth.
[perfectpullquote align=”right” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””] 44: 44 percent of players on NBA rosters at season’s end were D-League alums.
55: Blakeney shot 55 percent off the dribble in spot-up situations as a sophomore, the highest figure in the SEC and a top-10 number nationally.
85: DraftExpress.com ranks Blakeney the No. 85 prospects in this year’s class. [/perfectpullquote]
“I feel like it helped me a lot,” he says of his LSU career. “Adversity – there was a lot of adversity. It taught me how to keep working through it, never give up, and keep my work ethic.”
That work ethic is just one of the many skillsets Blakeney brings to the table. Though he’s in a battle to work his way into the draft, there’s a lot to like about his game at the next level. At 6-foot-4 and with a 6-foot-7 wingspan, he possesses the size to play the two in a league trending toward small-ball. He played in a pro-style, pick-and-roll heavy offense at LSU, and performed well as a primary option with little offense created for him, knocking down 41.4 percent of his shots off the dribble, per Synergy Sports – second in the SEC only to likely lottery pick Malik Monk. That off-the-bounce figure improved to an SEC-best and top-10 nationally 55 percent in spot up situations – those came infrequently in a system in which Blakeney was the primary creative force. That Blakeney got just 16 uncontested looks all year (he hit 10 of them, good for an SEC-best 62.5 percent on such attempts) shows just how hard he had to work for every one of his 17.2 points per game. As a complementary player at the next level, those open looks will come more often, and he’ll knock them down.
There’s plenty of room for improvement in his game, too. Scouts want to see more consistency from his jumper, more drive on defense, and more of what he can do as a ball handler.
Blakeney’s athleticism is elite, though. His shot was excellent in college and, he says, has improved drastically since. He’s hungry, and, perhaps for the first time in his life, underrated. Most critically, Blakeney is ready to take whatever road leads him to the NBA.
“Everybody’s path is different,” he says. “If there’s 10 guys that went undrafted, all their paths are going to be different. I’m just worried about my path, that’s it. And I don’t know what it’s going to be yet. I’m just going to work as hard as I can. Whatever it is, it’s for a reason. It’s in God’s hands.
“I’m prepared for whatever comes. Whatever situation comes, it’s going to be the right situation for me. I’m just going to work through it, the good and the bad. I’m ready for it.”