Bulls

Bulls player preview: Antonio Blakeney and the midrange conundrum

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USA TODAY

Bulls player preview: Antonio Blakeney and the midrange conundrum

NBC Sports Chicago will preview a different Bulls player every weekday leading up to the start of training camp in late September.

Previous reviews: Lauri Markkanen | Ryan Arcidiacono

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.

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The Pecking Order: An evening with the Chicago Bulls

The Pecking Order: An evening with the Chicago Bulls

As if letting us attend Bulls Media Day wasn’t ridiculous enough, my fellow Outsiders and I were invited to the 31st annual “An Evening with the Chicago Bulls” charity event on Tuesday night. Granted, our invitations only came when NBC Sports Chicago received a few extra tickets on the final day people could RSVP. But our executive producer Kevin Anderson got three very quick “Um, hell yeah!" responses from myself, Big Dave and John. Fool them once, shame on us. We were in!

Before I get into my silly list of favorite moments from the evening, I did want to mention how much I enjoyed and learned from the evening’s speakers. Jens Ludwig, the faculty director of the University of Chicago Crime Lab, spoke passionately and eloquently about our city’s crime problem, how it compares to other cities of similar size, and the ways his team’s research is creating new solutions.

Jack Solomon, a youth guidance counselor for BAM (Becoming a Man) and Jamille Thomas, an alum of the program, provided inspiring testimony of their experiences and the effectiveness of BAM’s operation for at-risk youth in Chicago.

We can talk about the Reindorf’s’ (un)willingness to pay the luxury tax for elite level talent at a different time. But when it comes to the work they do with Chicago Bulls Charities, they put their money where their mouths are. As they played a montage of some of their events from last year, I watched Zach LaVine – seated at the table next to me – look up at the screen with pride and joy as he watched himself bond with a family who received Christmas gifts courtesy of Bulls Charities. It’s so easy to forget that professional athletes are more than just stats, wins and losses that we watch on our TVs and discuss on social media. They’re human beings and they care. It was truly remarkable to see. Good job, Zach. Good job, Bulls.

Now, on to my favorite moments from the Outsiders experiencing our first “An Evening with the Chicago Bulls.”

1. We met Toni. THE Toni. Toni Kukoč. The Waiter. The Croatian Sensation. Sixth Man of the Year for the legendary 72-win season and 3-time NBA Champion for your Chicago Bulls. What the what? In case you think that John, Dave and I are starting to get a little too Insider-y for our role as Outsiders, this is what we look like when we get to talk to Toni. Us? Starstruck? No way.

We tried to get some intel from Toni on the ESPN 30 for 30 documentary “The Last Dance,” chronicling the Bulls’ final title season in 1997-98. Namely, when the hell is it going to debut? All they’ve given us so far is that it will be released some time in 2020. At least we’re getting closer, but still no exact release date? Come ON, people! Sadly, Toni couldn’t tell us the release date. Either because he doesn’t know or it’s a secret.

No matter. Meeting Toni was a major bucket list check mark of my Bulls super fandom, and he couldn’t have been nicer to us. Thanks to his daughter Stela for helping when Toni obliged our photo request!

2. OK, this one is a second-hand story of something that happened to Big Dave before John and I arrived. Dave’s wandering around upstairs at the Advocate Center and he runs into Gar Forman. Dave introduces himself and explains to Gar that he does a fan-centric show called Bulls Outsiders. Gar, who hadn’t heard of our show, asks Dave, “Are you nice, or are you mean?”

*Insert several cry-laughing emojis here*

Dave tells Gar he thinks we’re fair. As they continue to chat, Gar’s wife, Leslie, emerges from around a corner and recognizes Dave. “Hey, you’re one of the guys from that show!” Apparently, Leslie had caught our episode following the first Bulls preseason game last week. She told Dave that she enjoyed it and told Gar that he needs to watch.

So, we have at least two confirmed viewers of Bulls Outsiders. Zach LaVine’s dad and Leslie Forman. Now we just need to find a way to get Gar hooked on the show. Hmm…I’ll do some brainstorming. Have I mentioned how much younger and more athletic the Bulls look this season?

3. Kevin and I had a great chat with Zach. We asked him about his recent trending quotes; both people “talking sh*t” about his defense and the midrange shots controversy that got blown way out of proportion. You could tell Zach didn’t take kindly to the, shall we say, bold headline of a particular Bulls reporter on his story about Zach’s midrange quotes. Zach even responded to the article on Twitter, saying it was the farthest thing from the truth. He took the tweet down eventually, and it appears as though he and said reporter cleared up the confusion.

I agree with Zach’s assessment, and told him so during our chat. Yes, the league is trending away from midrange shots in favor of attacking the basket and shooting threes. He knows that. But when your team needs a bucket, get the ball to your best scorer. That’s Zach. If the shot he gets is a midrange shot, he’s going to take it. That’s the right answer. It’s that simple. Everything else about that midrange story was so ridiculously overblown.

Whether it’s Zach having the confidence to know any shot he takes is going in – midrange or not – or his newly inspired efforts we’re seeing on the defensive end, everything about Zach looks poised for a dominant season. As we were saying farewell at the end of the evening, I gave Zach a fist bump and told him, “Go get that All-Star nod.” He told me, “Oh it’s a done deal. In the bag." I believe him.

4. Luke Kornet finally got to hear John’s pitch for the “Luke Kornet’s Corn Nets” bit that he didn’t get to do at Media Day. He and his wife both thought it was hilarious. Dave was even quick to pull out his phone and show Luke a picture of the corn and nets that John brought to Media Day. Turns out, Luke’s wife wants Luke to write and perform a sketch for her upcoming birthday present. Methinks that John “Second City” Sabine and Luke have a bright future as comedy writing partners. First thing on their to-do list: Shoot the Kornet’s Corn Nets commercial and convince the necessary people to play it on the new videoboard at the United Center during a timeout of the home opener.

5. The Chicago Children’s Choir performed to kick off the evening’s festivities. Oh my God, they’re so talented. They sang two songs and I wanted at least two more. I asked Cristiano Felicio, who was seated with his girlfriend at our table, if he ever sang in a children’s choir. Sadly, no. I’d love to go searching for that footage. Remember how much Cubs fans freaked out when somebody unearthed that video of Kyle Schwarber performing with his high-school show choir? I’d pay top dollar to see a young Felicio in a similar setting. (Side note: Felicio is a really nice guy. It must be tough to be aware of how the fan base sees you and still put on a brave face. I’m sure the paycheck helps. But truthfully, the guy is delightful.)

6. Dave and I met Daniel Gafford and got to tell him how much we’re enjoying watching him play in these preseason games. In the annual NBA GMs poll that was released Thursday morning, we saw his name on the “others receiving votes” list for the category of biggest draft steal. The 38th overall pick could prove this season that he deserved a lot more votes. Assuming a healthy roster, his minutes will be hard to come by on a consistent basis. But he’s doing everything he can in this preseason action to show he’s significantly farther along in his development than people thought as they passed him by on draft night.

7. John and Benny the Bull crossed paths again. As Benny walked by us, he stopped dead in his tracks, whipped off his sunglasses and gave John a death stare that could darken the sun forever. There was another uneasy handshake between the two after the initial moment of terrifying tension.  Benny has nothing but love for Big Dave and me, but I’m still worried about his relationship with John. At some point soon, this could lead to fisticuffs. Or would that be hooficuffs?

8. Bulls assistant coach Karen Stack Umlauf has been with the team for decades and earned another promotion last year when became the first female assistant coach in franchise history. On Tuesday night, we met her husband, Mark, who is apparently another fan of Bulls Outsiders. (Hey, that’s three!)  He engaged us, and we ended up having a delightful conversation. He had some great stories about Bulls seasons of years past and teased us that he has several more. I’m hoping we run into him again soon.

Mark told us that Karen must always warn him to not “nerd out,” as she puts it, before he enters a room with various Bulls celebrities. Apparently, she gave him that very same warning when he wondered if he would run into us at this charity event. Us. Us three doofuses? C’mon, Mark. That’s hilarious. I assured him that we give each other the same warning before we’re about to meet Bulls legends of past and present, too. Mostly, it’s Dave doing it to me. 

I will continue to nerd out upon meeting Bulls heroes. They can deal with it. They’re used to it. I’m definitely still not used to it. (In case he’s reading this: Hey, Mark! Pleasure meeting you. And please, nerd out whenever you like. That’s what true fans do. Also, thanks for watching!)

9. Jim Boylen. Oh my god. I don’t know what planet this guy came from, but its beings are made with way more energy than the average human. Jim came up to us while we were sitting at our table, and joked, “Who let you guys in here?” Good question. We still don’t know who, but they made a mistake. Jim looked like a pinball all evening, bouncing around and conversing with seemingly every individual at the event. Maybe he felt like he needed to soak it all in, this being his first time attending the annual event as the team’s head coach. The face of the franchise. Gotta shake all the hands and kiss all the babies, as it were. But the dude certainly has the energy for it.

Then, as the evening was winding down, Jim came back to find us and engaged us again. He wanted to pitch us on what happened last season, the work they’ve done this offseason, and the positive changes we’re about to see on the floor. He told us that he wants us – all media, for that matter – to just be honest and fair. Critique his job performance and the team’s when it’s deserved. Most importantly, only speak on things you see and understand. 

Last season, plenty of people didn’t have a flipping clue what was going on. If there’s one area where I do have some sympathy for Jim and the Bulls front office, it’s that a lot of Bulls “fans” who checked out a long time ago still hurl insults in their direction for their own entertainment. And that’s not constructive. Often, it’s based on false information.

But we wouldn’t be doing our job as Bulls fans with our platform if we only talked about the positives. If something or someone is bad, we’ll call it out. I did warn Jim, too, that we’ll still be making jokes at his expense this season. And not to be “mean,” as Gar feared we might be. But because we’re fans, he’s the coach, and he’s got to roll with those punches. And let’s be honest, Jim’s epic quotes are ripe for joke picking. I think he understands that.

The last thing I told Jim, after I gave him that fair warning, is that I do sense a great deal of optimism among the fan base about this season. It’s been a long offseason of waiting, but there’s great belief that this team might finally be ready to turn a corner. We’re ready. We hope that Jim and his players are too. As Big Dave has stated repeatedly, and I couldn’t agree more: “I want to like Jim Boylen the coach as much as I like Jim Boylen the man.”  I’m certainly rooting for both.

Thanks for reading.  Attending this event was all kinds of stupid. I don’t understand why people let us do this, but it’s super cool that they do. Till next time.

See red, be good. - Peck

Bulls Talk Podcast: Thoughts after the preseason finale

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USA TODAY

Bulls Talk Podcast: Thoughts after the preseason finale

On this edition of the Bulls Talk podcast, Kendall Gill and Will Perdue join Jason Goff to recap the preseason and look ahead to the regular season opener

0:55 - On Wendell Carter Jr aggravating his thumb injury, how to treat it
7:00 - On the backup bigs, Luke Kornet’s role
8:45 - On Tomas Satoransky and Lauri Markkanen’s importance
10:30 - On how Lauri gets his points, does that matter?
13:45 - Are Bulls playing the right style of basketball for this roster?
17:25 - On Zach LaVine, how can he become an elite player?
20:10 - The traits of a good defender
22:50 - Kendall on how he decided to be a good defender
23:45 - Will on how Tim Duncan held teammates accountable on defense
27:15 - Kendall giving Will a hard time for calling Jordan ‘an average defender’

 

Bulls Talk Podcast

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