"Juice off the bench": Blakeney's growth from G-League to one of the hottest shooters in the NBA

As reporters were dispersing from the rare post game interview scrum with Antonio Blakeney, he turned and asked how the Windy City Bulls had done Friday, their opening night. They won impressively, he was told.

"Those are my guys," Blakeney brightened. "I'll be out there every game I can."

Though no longer as a player since not only is the 6-4 guard securing a place in the Bulls playing rotation, Blakeney is on a roll as one of the hottest shooters in the NBA.

Coming off a run that included making a Klay Thompson-like 10 threes in 12 attempts in the last three games into the Bulls 107-105 loss to the Indiana Pacers Friday, Blakeney is shooting 59 percent on threes for the season, 16 of 27. He's third on the Bulls in scoring at 12.4 per game despite averaging just 18 minutes per game and is the team's leading shooter at 55 percent. With his career high 22 points against Indiana, the former G-leaguer is averaging 19.3 the last three games in 20 minutes per game.

"I've definitely come a long way," agrees Blakeney, who was the G-league leading scorer last season. "Last year this time I was playing at Windy City. For me to be here and playing all nine games this season, that's growth. I just want to keep going; just trying to bring the juice off the bench."

It's been a squeeze for Blakeney, who was Ben Simmons' college teammate, but lost in the mix of a long LSU team, questions about his ability to defend and no sponsor without a place in the draft. He always could shoot; it seemed like he'd have to take a shot overseas.

But the undrafted free agent earned a ride with Windy City off a strong Summer League with the Bulls in 2017 and is beginning to assume a vital and rare NBA role of the instant offense reserve, lately occupied by the likes of Lou Williams, Eric Gordon and Jamal Crawford. Blakeney has had that impact recently with the Bulls with his unusual ability to seem to hang in the air to get his shot off on a favorite elbow or free throw drive and jumper. He's added to that an improved three-point shot after an erratic preseason with his offense carrying the Bulls in stretches.

"I'm a confident player whether I am missing or making," Blakeney said after the loss to Indiana. "Preseason I missed some shots, in and out. I was shooting short, so just trying to get my lift and knock them down. My confidence is high even when I'm not red hot; even when I'm shooting bricks."

That's not always comforting to coaches, but that's the mentality that separates the great shooters. They can be zero for 12 and be shocked when they missed No. 13. The comparison is a player like Doug McDermott, the former Bull who plays for the Indiana Pacers. McDermott probably has a better shooting stroke than Blakeney. But McDermott tries to be so perfect and hesitates when he's missing. Blakeney's idea of a bad shot is when he doesn't take one.

He's also an impressive athlete, a strong finisher on the fast break with a rare ability to get off the floor quickly and contort his body to avoid the defense. He proved too good for the G-league last season averaging 32 points playing the entire season with Windy City and providing more thrills for Hoffman Estates than dollar days at Woodfield Mall.

"I'm more a playmaker/scorer type of game," said Blakeney. "Right now I am hitting a lot of threes. Me saying I'm just going to be a three point shooter, I won't say that. I'm just shooting it with confidence right now. On this team, I'm going to come off the bench playing behind Zach, a great player. Zach talks with me about this all the time: When he goes out and I come in, let it be no letup. We are kind of similar; both can score the ball, both pretty athletic. So when he gets out and I get in there, I try for it to be no letup and bring that energy."

Blakeney did again making four of five shots in the second half with the best second half plus/minus rating on the team. His four-point play with 30.5 seconds left was almost the highlight of the night in the NBA and you loved that Wendell Carter Jr. tracked down that Justin Holiday miss and got the ball to Blakeney for a last shot to try to win the game.

"The (four-point) play was for Zach and he kind of picked his dribble up, so I just ran to the ball," explained Blakeney of his familiar route. "I didn't know he was going to foul me. He did and luckily I could knock it down and the free throw. We're (reserves) always talking on the sideline that we have to bring that juice, got to bring that energy. It's always with Hutch (Chandler Hutchison), Arch (Ryan Arcidiacono), ‘Let's go, let's go.' We try to hype each other on the bench."

Last year it was Arcidiacono and Blakeney doing it for Windy City. Now it's in the NBA and looking impressive with Arcidiacono one of the league leaders in assist-to-turnover ratio and the Bulls assists leader with Kris Dunn out.

"I come in every day with my back against the wall being undrafted, coming from the G-league, not being a player who makes a lot of money," said Blakeney. "But my confidence is always there, contract or not."

The Bulls are finding out it's money in the bank.