The Bulls weren't that prominently mentioned last week in the annual NBA general managers' survey of the league's best and best to be. The Bulls got a few mentions, which were encouraging, like tied for third in Most Promising Young Core, Wendell Carter Jr. tied for second in most likely Rookie of the Year and Draft Steal, Jabari Parker tied for second in Underrated Player Acquisition and Lauri Markkanen tied for fourth in Most Likely Breakout Season.
The survey just omitted the category in which the Bulls might have been No. 1: Most Athletic Shooting Guard Position.
That's because with Zach LaVine finally looking back in his dunk champion form after his ACL surgery in February 2017, the Bulls may have unusual strength at shooting guard with the developing and often overlooked play of Antonio Blakeney.
"He has a knack for being able to get his shot off," acknowledged Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg. "I love his attack and the way he got to the rim; very good in the open court when he got the ball off the rim or with the outlet. We love what Antonio showed."
It's just two games with the Bulls next playing 6:00 p.m. Monday in Charlotte. The Bulls are 1-1 with an encouraging opening game win against New Orleans and then a discouraging failure in Milwaukee. But through the two games, Blakeney has been one of the most consistent performers for the Bulls.
Blakeney was the only Bulls player in the 34-point loss to the Bucks with a plus rating on the court. He and Wendell Carter Jr., the latter who has been quietly effective but probably not used enough, are the only Bulls players with combined plus ratings for the two games.
Blakeney is tied with LaVine at 14.5 points for second in team scoring and in free throw attempts. But surprisingly Blakeney is second on the team in assists after leading in the Milwaukee game and fourth in rebounding, playing an effective all around game for a player who was regarded as a shooter with blinders.
"That's something I worked on in the G-league and that's something the coaches harped on with me, to make those simple plays," Blakeney says. "I try to make the simple ones when they are there. I'm more comfortable out there now. I know what I want to do and I'm not rattled, so that's why it's pretty easy for me."
Two of the best Bulls plays in a game with few good plays in Milwaukee were Blakeney driving into the lane, going up for his shot and then passing to Carter for easy scores. The plays drew gasps in not only the sense of making that kind of pass in the air after committing to a shot, but that they were made by Blakeney.
The 6-4 college teammate of the 76ers Ben Simmons, a celebrated high school scoring guard from Florida who wasn't drafted and seemed to fall off the NBA radar, merely hoped to get a chance in the 2017 Summer League in Las Vegas. Blakeney got an invitation to Bulls training camp last season. But he seemed shaken and unsure in games. Still, the Bulls took a shot on him for the new two-way G-League contract that allows a limited of NBA games. Blakeney showed a glimpse of what he can do with a 15-point quarter in an early season go from ahead loss to the Lakers.
But he seemed to be pressing too much in his mostly limited play, forcing shots. He then became something of a G-league legend, averaging 32 points per game and showing he was too good for that league. Was he good enough for the NBA?
Blakeney got a bit of a run last March amidst all the Bulls juggling and losses, quietly scoring in double figures in five of six games before sitting out the last month. In those six games, he averaged 10 points in about 23 minutes. But more impressively playing with a team that was averaging losing those games by about 10 points, Blakeney had an overall rating of about plus-10 for those six games.
The Bulls always seemed to gain ground when Blakeney was on the floor, and it's continued into this season in the small sample.
He's not going to be a great defender, but Blakeney has a rare ability to get a shot whenever he wants without it being forced. He has a quick dribble and then is able to rise up and shoot with his high level athletic ability. He's been playing generally in a group with Carter, Portis and Cameron Payne that has been the most efficient for the Bulls.
"Right now, I feel more comfortable," Blakeney acknowledged. "The game kind of slowed down for me on both ends. I know when I get out there I'm not like rattled anymore. I kind of go out there and play. The year in the G-league and the little bit I played in the NBA really helped me."
It's also a benefit of having that G-league team being part of the Bulls organization. That figures to help someone like rookie Chandler Hutchison this season, potentially enabling a talented player to gain confidence and playing time while also working with the NBA team.
The Bulls still are undermanned with Markkanen and Denzel Valentine injured. So Justin Holiday has been starting. Which would raise the question when the team is healthy, if it ever can be given the bad luck the Bulls have encountered, is who emerges for those reserve shots. We know Bobby Portis will get his share. Will it be Valentine, Holiday or Blakeney? Or some combination?
Valentine has proven a good three-point threat, but doesn't have the ability to free himself for a shot with explosive moves like Blakeney. Blakeney seems to have a chance to develop into that electric sixth man type of scorer like Lou Williams, Eric Gordon or Jamal Crawford with his size and quickness. Blaleney probably needs more consistency, however, with his three-point shot.
"I feel like I can be somebody who can come and compete hard every game," Blakeney said. "Someone who can get a basket and get baskets for others; easy shots. I can get into the paint pretty much at will and kick it out. I want to be able to bring the energy and not only score for myself, but get other guys shots. I've got a lot of expectations for myself and want to do more."
The Bulls could use the help.