Johnny Jones couldn’t help but break his postgame poker face.
LSU’s head coach, notoriously nonchalant with the press after both wins and losses, had plenty of reason to be pumped after LSU’s 85-67 demolition of Kentucky last week, but chose instead to continue his calm, composed approach with the media.
Until he thought about Antonio Blakeney. Then his eyes lit up.
“It’s coming,” said Jones, a smile curling at the corners of his mouth, briefly. “When Blakeney gets to knocking shots down on a consistent basis…it’s going to allow for our team to look a little different, in a positive way.”
Through LSU’s 9-6 start to the season, no player has been as perplexing as Blakeney. A five-star signee out of Oak Ridge High School in Orlando, Florida, Blakeney was widely considered one of the best pure scorers in this year’s heralded freshman class, which included five top 15 players bound for SEC schools. He drew comparisons to Bradley Beal and Jamal Crawford for his ability to score in bunches at all three levels, and picked LSU over Louisville, Kentucky, and North Carolina, partnering with Ben Simmons to form a freshman tandem sure to lead the Tigers deep into March.
Yet 15 games into his career, Blakeney hasn’t lived up to that billing. He’s averaging just 9.3 points per game on 35 percent shooting from the field, 27 percent shooting from 3, and 68 percent from the line. In conference play, those numbers drop to 6.3 points per game on .304/.182/.750 shooting.
Diagnoses of Blakeney’s drought are wide-ranging. Some say he was overrated coming out of high school. Others say he’s being used incorrectly at LSU. Blakeney himself says he’s fine.
“I don’t think I’m in a slump at all,” he said last week. “I’m taking good shots. I’ve been in slumps before where I couldn’t score the ball, where I was going extra hard to get a bucket and I couldn’t get it. Now, I’m just taking good shots, shooting them the same way every time, they’re just not going in. I don’t see myself in a slump.”
The numbers disagree. After reaching double figures in each of the Tigers’ first five games, he’s hit that mark just twice in the 10 contests since: 11 points against Gardner-Webb, and 12 points against Oral Roberts. He started the season 8 of 17 (47 percent) from downtown. He’s 12 of 56 (21 percent) since.
There’s no question Blakeney’s in a shooting slump. The question is why, and the answers are, to me, fairly straightforward.
First and foremost, SEC Basketball is tough. The freshmen who hit the ground running in the league are few and far between. Just a look at Blakeney’s highly-touted peers from the league’s Class of 2015 shows that he’s not alone in his struggles to adapt to college basketball.
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Other than Simmons, none have transitioned seamlessly to the collegiate level. Labissiere has been disappointing and a defensive liability. Newman has been serviceable. Briscoe can’t shoot (18 percent from 3, 33 percent from the line). Dozier is the least efficient per 100 possessions. Comparatively speaking, Blakeney’s keeping pace with his peers.
And he’s doing so in perhaps the toughest climate of all of them, relative to his style of play. Coming out of high school, Blakeney was a ball-dominant guard used to controlling the offense with the rock in his hands. On the shooting scales, he leaned more toward streaky than pure, but he could get hot in a hurry and, most critically, shoot his way into heat from cooler starting temperatures.
At LSU, however, Blakeney is surrounded by offensive weapons, both of the ball-dominant (Simmons, Tim Quarterman) variety and ever-moving (Keith Hornsby) variety. After years of being the primary option, he’s now battling for the ball with others on a crowded court.
“I don’t know, it’s hard on this team,” he says. “We’ve got so many options. The ball doesn’t move well. We have to work on moving the ball. It’s hard. It’s hard. I don’t know.”
He’s clearly not comfortable, yet, playing primarily without the ball. Accustomed to creating his own shots, Blakeney must now wait for others to create for him, as evidenced by his 15.2 usage rate, lower only than Jalyn Patterson among all LSU regulars. That’s not a typo: Darcy Malone, Aaron Epps, Elbert Robinson, and Brian Bridgewater all use more possessions than Blakeney.
“In high school, I had the ball in my hands,” he said. “It was different. It’s definitely an adjustment.”
Which means if he misses a shot or two early, the opportunity to shoot his way out of a funk and into form is a quickly-closing window.
“A lot of times, these guys coming out of high school are volume guys,” says Jones. “They have an opportunity to take a lot of shots. Whether they can get on and start hitting, that’s the big adjustment for most high profile guys coming from high school. It’s no different with Blakeney. [He’s] probably not getting as many attempts as [he’s] used to. [He’ll] come around and become comfortable with that. That night’s going to come where he is going to come on and get in a rhythm.”
To be fair, Blakeney’s standard is high because that’s where he set it. He scored in spades as a prep, and he sets extremely high goals for himself (he told me in the preseason his goal was to average 10 rebounds per game this season) and his team (he told reporters in the summer that he believed LSU would win the national championship this year, a quote that looks bolder out of context that it really is, but that illustrates Blakeney’s extreme confidence).
But even if that’s where Blakeney set the bar for himself, it’s perhaps unfair to have expected him – or any freshmen not surnamed Simmons, at least – to set the world on fire from day one.
“People make it tough for them with all the attention they get,” said Hornsby of the league’s high profile newcomers. “Their expectations go through the roof. The reality is college is a different game. They find that out for themselves pretty early in the year. The next step in their development depends on how they react to that. Antonio’s done an amazing job. He’s struggled shooting a lot of the year, but he’s found other ways to affect the game, while still having confidence with his shot.”
As he continues to look for consistency with his stroke, the primary way Blakeney’s affected the game is on the defensive end. If he’s offensively frustrated, he’s channeling all that energy into the other end of the floor, emerging as a stopper of sorts for the Tigers on the ball and taking massive strides off of it. He spent the first few games figuring out small things like rotations and close outs, but since has been of LSU’s best defenders on and off the ball, often drawing the opposition’s toughest assignment and making him work for his points.
Blakeney defense. https://t.co/yBpVoBQAd0
— Cody Worsham (@CodyWorsham) January 13, 2016
“I go at every game focused on defense,” he says. “That’s the main thing I try to focus on, and let everything else come. I always was athletic and fast, but I didn’t have the techniques to play defense or the willingness to play defense. At this level, Coach Jones, that’s what he harps on us. If I wasn’t playing good D, I probably wouldn’t be playing much.”
That approach is one of the many positives about Blakeney’s game and the reason I’m confident he’ll heat up sooner rather than later from the field. Mentally, he’s mature beyond his years. He doesn’t slack on defense because he’s unhappy on offense. He takes care of the ball, leading the SEC in turnover percentage by coughing the ball up on just 6.3 percent of the Tigers’ possessions, and is still dangerous in the pick and roll game (below) and on the break.
Antonio Blakeney pick and roll https://t.co/GPL8gM2dBp
— Cody Worsham (@CodyWorsham) January 13, 2016
And, most critically, he doesn’t let the challenge of the slump discourage him, choosing instead to view it positively.
“It’s a big adjustment,” he says, “but I look at it as an opportunity to get better in another area of the game. If I came to a team where it was still the same way as in high school, my defense wouldn’t have grown. It’s just going to make my game evolve altogether.”
The next stage in that evolution isn’t knocking down the outside shot – that will come – but in knocking down free throws. Blakeney draws three fouls a game and has a 25.9 FT Rate (free throws attempted/field goals attempted), nearly a third of Simmons’ 70.9 rate and well below guys like Hornsby (40.9) and Quarterman (44.8). He sometimes settles for the midrange when he’d be better served attacking the defense and trying to draw fouls.
“I’m definitely going to try to attack more off the dribble, maybe that will get me in a better rhythm, seeing the ball go through the rim at the free throw line,” he says. “I know I can shoot my free throws well. I definitely have to get myself in the paint, don’t run from the contact, get to the line.”
Another tweak that could help Blakeney, if LSU can afford it, is to either bring him off the bench or let him take the reins of the offense when Simmons goes to the bench to rest. If you put Patterson – a set shooter, ball mover, and solid defender – in his place to start, Blakeney could lead the second unit and be more ball-dominant, the primary focus in a five-man lineup of, say, Blakeney, Patterson, Sampson, Epps, and Robinson. There, he could give LSU a key spark off the bench and establish an offensive rhythm while still finishing games in crunch time and playing starters’ minutes. The downside is that Blakeney’s defense has arguably been too good to take him out of the starting five.
Tweaks or not, the key for Blakeney in the meantime is patience. Patience in the short term means continuing to take good shots, not being a ball-stopper offensively, and thriving defensively – basically what he’s done all season.
Patience in the long term means trusting in the process nearly all freshmen endure. It means trusting that his talent – and there’s plenty of it – will soon triumph over his youth. It means trusting that his coach is right when his eyes light up, and he promises a pool of reporters, “It’s coming.”