By CODY WORSHAM | Tiger Rag Editor
Late in Monday’s 113-80 exhibition win over Reinhardt, Johnny Jones pulled Antonio Blakeney from the game. It was the right call: LSU was up big, and Blakeney had already logged 26 minutes in a game that would not count toward the team’s record or any players’ stats for the season ahead.
None of that mattered to Blakeney.
LSU’s sophomore guard was one assist shy of 10, and he knew it. He begged Jones to put him in, and for a moment, his coach obliged.
Then Blakeney noticed the smile on Jones’ face, and took his seat.
“It’s his fault,” Blakeney said after the game, motioning toward forward Duop Reath. “He missed a couple bunnies.”
“I did it on purpose,” Reath fired back.
Bunnies or no, Blakeney showcased, for the first time since his arrival at LSU, his ability to be a playmaker and a play-finisher. He finished the game with nine assists – a sevenfold improvement on last year’s 1.3 per game average. With the departure Ben Simmons, Tim Quarterman and Keith Hornsby from last year’s squad, everyone around the program knows Blakeney will bear more of the creative burden in his sophomore season.
“He’s just got to come back and make sure he can raise not only his level, but his teammates’ level and make guys around him better,” Jones said earlier this fall. “Last year, he was able to feed off of Ben and Tim and Keith. This year, it’ll be different. Those other guys around him – how much better will they get, and how much will he impact them?”
In a terrifically small sample so far, Blakeney’s impact on his teammates has been marked. He never dealt out more than four assists in a game a year ago. Against Reinhardt, he surpassed that number in the first half, often passing on an opportunity to create offense for himself to do the same for others.
“I’m just showing that element of my game. I could pass the ball last year but that wasn’t my role. It’s not my role this year. My role is to make plays, to make the right plays. Sometimes that’s to pass, Sometimes that’s the shoot, and not take any bad shots. Last year it was more catch and shoot the ball.”
On such plays last year, Blakeney thrived, spotting up on 30.3 percent of his offensive usages and scoring 1.16 points per possession on those plays, per data from Synergy Sports – the third best number in the league. As a pure catch-and-shoot threat, Blakeney was deadly, scoring 1.36 points per possession when shooting without a dribble in the half court, fifth in the SEC and in the 92nd percentile nationally. On 31 percent of those attempts, he was unguarded, producing 1.5 points per possession.
This year, Blakeney knows those looks will come less frequently. Without Simmons around to free up others, the onus of offensive creation will more often fall upon Blakeney.
“Last year Ben was getting people the ball, so I would just catch it and shoot it,” he said. “I wasn’t really the play maker on the team. We had play makers on our team. So this year I’m more just trying to be a play maker, whether it’s scoring, passing, whatever the case may be.”
WOFFORD PREVIEW: The 3 is Key
LSU tips off the season in earnest Saturday at 1 p.m. against Wofford, and the Tigers’ focus will be on defending the three-point line far better than it did Monday, when Reinhardt buried 13 triples.
The main man to mark is guard Fletcher Magee, who ranked sixth nationally in true shooting percentage (68.6%) last season. As a freshman, Magee was among the top shooters in the country, posting a .472/.483/.943 shooting line a year ago. He’s incredibly dangerous from deep, LSU knows.
“We’re going to have to try to run them off the three-point line and that’s somewhere where we’ll have to make adjustments with Magee and the type of shooter he is,” Jones said. “He can put it on the deck as well and get to the rim so we’ll certainly have to mix up our coverages on him and give him different looks to hopefully keep him off balance.”
Blakeney said the key is simply defensive intensity. That’s the biggest lesson he learned as a freshman a year ago.
“Every game matters, and every team’s good,” he said. “It doesn’t matter if you’re playing Charleston. It doesn’t matter who it is, because every team is going to give you their best shot, and you never know — one day, your shots might not be clicking and theirs are. You have to get up for every game the same way. You can’t get up for Kentucky and not get up for Wake Forest. Each game, you have to be hype, same level.”
Against Reinhardt, the Tigers didn’t do that, and, in Blakeney’s mind, gave up too many points. He hopes to fix that Saturday.
“Got to talk about it, let everybody know that it’s important, no matter who you’re playing, to bring effort and energy,” he said. “And then you got to go out there and do it. I’ve got to lead by example. I don’t think I did a very good job of that versus Reinhardt. Because they were bad, and everybody looked at them like, ‘This is an easy win.’ It was, but they still scored 80 points, which is unacceptable. Have to do a better job of that, just let the team know whoever were playing I’ve got to go out there and actually play my hardest, and that will make everybody else play hard as well.”
- Jalyn Patterson and Elbert Robinson, who both sat for the exhibition, will be available for LSU.
- Branden Jenkins (knee) remains out until Christmas, and Craig Victor (violation of team rules) will miss “a few games,” according to Jones
- The game will be available on WatchESPN and broadcast on the LSU Sports Radio Network (lsusports.net/live)
- PROJECTED STARTERS: Jalyn Patterson, Brandon Sampson, Antonio Blakeney, Aaron Epps, Duop Reath