Antonio Blakeney is like that gold nugget embedded in a boulder. So close to being a great discovery, but you're still hacking away attempting to extract the treasure. He could be another Lou Williams, Jamal Crawford or Ricky Pierce, the rare instant offense player who energizes a team and enhances its starters.
"He's a guy when you are struggling to put the ball in the basket, he can go by his man and he can create," agrees Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg. "We didn't have a lot of those guys last year who can get by their man like that."
But the brilliance and impact that could be Blakeney continues to be only frustratingly close. He's once again the Bulls leading scorer in Summer League who still seems too good for the G-league and not quite ready to display his influence on a regular basis in the NBA. It's perhaps as achingly exasperating for Blakeney as it is for the Bulls. He's a 6-4, 200 pounder who often looks like he could be one of the most of gifted scorers in the NBA with an uncanny ability to get to the basket, a solid shooting stroke and probably the team's best finisher on the fast break.
Blakeney showed that opening up Summer League for the Bulls with 14 first quarter points and 25 for the game as they rode to a victory over the Cavaliers. His game was mostly overshadowed by the coming out party for rookie Wendell Carter Jr., who had 16 points and five blocks.
Carter suffered a leg contusion in the Game 2 loss to the Lakers Sunday. Hoiberg said Carter didn't do much in practice Monday, but he is having no physical issues and will start Tuesday against the Atlanta Hawks (5 p.m. NBA-TV). Hoiberg said the same starting five will open the game.
That will include Blakeney, who even with an ugly two of 15 shooting in Sunday's loss, still leads the team in scoring. The Bulls would love to unlock that Blakeney scoring potential for their regular season roster and rotation given Blakeney's potential as a classic sixth man instant scorer.
But it's the defense, and the failure to find teammates when the double team and help comes and so many little things that seem correctable. If only, if only... .
"Defense and making simple plays all the time; sometimes I do and sometimes I won't, so I have to do that all the time, make those simple plays," Blakeney said after Monday practice in a mantra that probably has been a regular chant for him from the coaching staff. "Obviously, I can score in a variety of ways, off the bench or whatever the case may be. Right now as a young player in the league what I am trying to establish is bring that energy off the bench; score and bring energy. Obviously, that's not my future goal in my career, but right now that's something I am trying to evolve to until I am where I want to be as a starter in the league one day."
Blakeney has that capability. The Bulls surely could use that from the undrafted 21-year-old from LSU. It all seems so close. But just close.
Blakeney was the star of the summer last year and then exciting early in training camp. But after the sort of thing he could do with a 15-point quarter against the Lakers in November, he drifted to the back of the bench as players recovered from injuries and indignities.
Blakeney earned the new two-way G-league contract to get his foot into the NBA. So with the roster expanding, the Bulls sent him to Windy City where Blakeney was a cyclone of offense. He was G-league rookie of the year and leading scorer at 32 per game with a half dozen games of at least 40 points.
He outgrew the G-league quickly, and then when he began to find a bit of a fit with the Bulls in March with four games scoring in double figures in five games, he suffered a season ending fracture.
It is a curious predicament for Blakeney.
He could dominate the G-league, but no G-league player gets a chance to do that in the NBA. G-league players have to accept a role to crack an NBA roster; perhaps a rebounder or spot minutes defender. Dominant scorer? No, teams have high lottery draft picks for that. So Blakeney also has been trying to temper his game to match his Bulls potential, at least for now.
"Last year, I came into the Summer League trying to prove myself, get a roster spot," Blakeney noted. "I am still trying to make it in the league. I feel like I (have been) a good professional, coming in early, leaving late to practice; obviously, I played well in the G-league and had some flashes in the NBA.
"Obviously, the situation last year was hard," Blakeney acknowledged. "When you are in the G-league, you get to play a certain amount of minutes and take a certain amount of shots. Get to do what you want. But that's not my role in the NBA. It kind of didn't prepare me for what my role was going to be in the NBA. So now what I am trying to do is figure out my role and keep getting better at that. Every day in practice, being efficient, trying not to be a volume guy, but an efficient guy, being around the guys we have and learning from them."
It's a delicate balancing act because Blakeney can be as accomplished a scorer as any of them. And then can you—or even should you— try to turn a volume scorer like Blakeney into a playmaker and ball mover? The Bulls continue to work with Blakeney to identify help defense and find open teammates. Some players just don't see that.
Many of the greatest scoring sixth men in league history weren't always adept at passing the ball. That's why they became such good scorers. But Blakeney also hasn't shown enough consistency that the team would or should be comfortable in putting him in a role for a high number of shot attempts. It's the maddening paradox.
"We fell in love with him last year in a three-on-three draft workout," Hoiberg said. "He won every game and a lot was the one-on-one stuff; always found a way to string five or six (baskets) together. He was a very raw player on both ends of the floor when he came in last year. We've seen growth in all areas since then. We know he can score; it's about adding elements as far as playmaker and keeping that defensive intensity no matter how things are going on the offensive end. The trend of the league is switching, and he is a guy who can back up and get a full head of steam and beat his man and get to the basket and make a play. The important thing with his growth is when he gets by his man and draws that second defender, he has to make that kick, on time, on target pass. He's gotten better at it; continue to grow in that area."
But at least Blakeney isn't lacking for confidence. Asked about being able to help the Bulls like a Lou Williams or Jamal Crawford type, Blakeney said, "I think I can easily do that right now. I can finish, drive, shoot the midrange, shoot the three, off the dribble, catch and shoot, so I think my offensive game is pretty polished. But now I am just focusing on Summer League. This is all about getting better and having fun, trying to win."
And maybe finding a guy who can really help get some of those wins when it matters most.