NBC Sports Chicago will preview a different Bulls player every weekday leading up to the start of training camp in late September.
How last year went
Antonio Blakeney earned himself a two-year deal in July for two reasons: He was named the 2018 G-League Rookie of the Year after averaging 32.0 points per game, and he averaged 21.0 points, 4.4 rebounds and 2.2 assists in five Summer League games a year ago.
He had a supporter in Fred Hoiberg, who gave the 22-year-old 31 minutes on opening night against the Sixers. In fact, Blakeney averaged 17.0 minutes before Hoiberg was fired in early December. He fell out of favor with defensive-minded Jim Boylen, averaging 8.8 minutes in December (with seven DNP-CDs) and only returned to the rotation late in the season with the Bulls resting their wounded core; Blakeney averaged 16.8 minutes in March and 15.6 minutes in April.
Blakeney was a shoot-first (and second, and third) shooting guard who shot a respectable 39.4% from beyond the arc on 1.6 attempts and had a handful of hot stretches.
Expectations for this year’s role
The Bulls need to remove one contract from their books before the regular season begins, and it’s possible Blakeney is the odd man out. The Bulls could waive him and his $1.6 million contract and not feel much blowback, and there’s no scenario in which he provides anything for the Bulls (unless they’re incredibly injury-bitten for a second straight year).
If they keep him on the roster, his only real path to minutes would be if Chandler Hutchison can’t stay healthy and Denzel Valentine proves unable to come back from ankle reconstruction surgery. In that scenario, the Bulls would need someone – anyone – to log small forward minutes. Per Basketball Reference, Blakeney logged 31% of his minutes at the 3 (obviously in small-ball lineups) last season. He’s capable, though it clearly wouldn’t be ideal.
Where he excels
The corners were kind to Antonio Blakeney. In fact, he was one of the game’s best 3-point shooters from those spots on the floor. Blakeney connected on 20 of 39 3-point attempts from the corner (51.3%). That’s obviously a small sample size, but of players who attempted at least 30 triples from the corner, Blakeney ranked 11th in the NBA. The problem was that he didn’t take more of them. Those corner triples accounted for just 9.8% of his 396 field goal attempts last season (more on that later).
Blakeney also finished well at the rim. He was aggressive in transition and used his speed to get position on defenders in the open floor. He averaged 1.13 points per transition possession (Zach LaVine averaged 1.19, for context). That, as well as his underrated athleticism, resulted in him shooting 62.1% in the restricted area on 66 attempts. Again, a small sample size but a promising one. Blakeney has good body control at the rim and sneaky strength to finish through contact.
It’s worth noting, based on how last season went, that Blakeney was available. He racked up some DNP-CDs but was a rare Bulls player who escaped injury. That mattered in a season where just about everyone was banged up at some point in the season. Blakeney only played in 57 games – including a G-League stint – but never dealt with injury. He’s well built.
Where he needs work
Well, he doesn’t need work as much as he needs to improve his shot selection. As we noted, Blakeney is a talented 3-point shooter and can finish at the rim. That’s high efficiency offense. The only problem? He absolutely loves the midrange, and he’s not particularly good at it.
Blakeney attempted 123 midrange jumpers last season, accounting for 31% of his total attempts. You know the one. Three dribbles to the free throw line and a leaning fadeaway jumper over a defender that hasn’t been beaten by the robotic move. It would have been one thing if Blakeney was making these shots. But he’s not exactly DeMar DeRozan. In fact, of players who attempted at least 120 midrange shots last year, Blakeney ranked 89th of 94 players, shooting 33.3% from the field.
Blakeney shot 34.2% on 202 pull-up shots. He shot 40.3% on 72 catch-and-shoot jumpers. This is all backwards. Blakeney averaged 3.5 pull-up shots per game, more than the following players: Aaron Gordon, Bojan Bogdanovic, Eric Bledsoe, Fred VanVleet and you get the point. If he sees the floor next season, he should stay on it until his first midrange jumper. He’s too good from the corner and at the rim to settle for such low-percentage, low-efficiency attempts.
Defensively, well, it’s not good. Blakeney ranked 107th of 108 shooting guards in Defensive RPM. He tallied just 12 steals, and he and J.J. Redick ranked dead last among guards in steals per-36 minutes (0.5). His 11.2% steal rate was sandwiched between Frank Kaminsky and Jahlil Okafor. He simply doesn’t provide much defensively, but he was brought in as a scorer anyway. There’s not much upside there.
Best case/worst case
There’s a chance the Bulls rely on Blakeney for early-season minutes behind Otto Porter as a small-ball 3. We’re not talking anywhere close to the minutes he averaged last season, but he may need to play spot minutes. If that’s the case, the hope is new assistant Chris Fleming deploys him in a similar role he and the Nets put their shooters in; Brooklyn was 12th in 3-pointers made and attempted last season.
In a worst-case scenario, Blakeney is cut. He certainly looks like the odd man out, with the Bulls perhaps wanting to hang on to Kris Dunn to improve his trade value or see if he’s better suited on a second unit away from Zach LaVine. If Blakeney stays, a worst-case scenario would be him stealing shots – and low percentage ones at that – from guys like Coby White and Chandler Hutchison on the second unit. Daniel Gafford is going to need someone to feed him the ball. If Blakeney becomes a black hole, he doesn’t get any better. Since Blakeney isn’t much of a defensive plus, Jim Boylen will have a short leash if he gets shot-happy.
One key stat
It’s this author’s favorite stat of all-time. Antonio Blakeney isn’t much of a passer. Not like he doesn’t hand out many assists (he doesn’t), but in that he doesn’t like to physically pass the ball.
Consider that it took Blakeney until March 15 to have more passes than field goal attempts for the season. Blakeney finished with 396 field goal attempts and 432 passes. He also finished with 0.7 assists per game. Of the 127 guards who played at least 57 games, Blakeney was 124th in assists per game. Only Sindarius Thornwell, Gerald Green and Derrick Jones Jr. averaged fewer assists.
436 players averaged 10 minutes per game last season. Blakeney was 432nd in passes per game. And 25 of the 29 players directly above him on the passes per game list averaged fewer than Blakeney’s 14.5 minutes per game, so it’s not like he was penalized for not playing much. He just didn’t pass.