Summer league star Blakeney set to lead Windy City Bulls
Antonio Blakeney has ridden a hype train that couldn't climb the mountain.
Now he's taking a different track to reach the NBA. The 6-foot-4 shooting guard was the first player signed by the Bulls to a two-way contract and figures to be one of the featured players when the Windy City Bulls begin their second season in Hoffman Estates. The G-League season opener is Saturday at Sears Centre Arena against the Westchester Knicks.
Three years ago, Blakeney helped send expectations through the roof when he committed to join AAU teammate Ben Simmons at LSU. Simmons was widely considered the No. 1 player in the country coming out of high school. Blakeney was ranked as high as No. 17 by Rivals.
Simmons and Blakeney were the Big Ballers of their day, minus the loudmouthed parent. Here's what Dick Vitale said in the New Orleans Times-Picayune about the pairing of Florida high school superstars.
"Him and Simmons, the two of them together, are going to bring a lot of basketball excitement to LSU," Vitale said in January of 2015. "They'll be thunder and lightning and are going to create some really good times down there."
As we now know, Simmons and Blakeney didn't lead LSU to the Final Four. They didn't even play in the postseason after finishing 19-14. The Tigers might have been impressive if a couple of future NBA players, Jarell Martin and Jordan Mickey, didn't leave for the pros after the previous season, but that's the way it goes in college hoops.
"It was tough, my freshman year in college," Blakeney said. "We had a lot of preseason hype and didn't live up to it. We sold out the first few games at LSU. They hadn't really had those type of fans since Shaq. More fans, more media."
After the 2015-16 season, Simmons turned pro and was the No. 1 overall pick by Philadelphia. Blakeney stayed for a second season at LSU, averaged 17.2 points for a 10-21 team, and wasn't drafted when he jumped to the NBA.
That's where the Bulls joined the story. They hosted Blakeney for a pre-draft workout and signed him to their summer league squad.
"He had an absolute great draft workout with us," Windy City Bulls coach Charlie Henry said. "He really just came in for his workout and showed he can score the ball."
Blakeney's trip to the Las Vegas summer league began quietly. But then both Kris Dunn and Cameron Payne went home for personal reasons. Pushed into a lead role, Blakeney averaged 25 points and 9.5 rebounds over the next two games and the Bulls offered the two-way deal.
Two-way contracts are new this season. Those players are allowed to spend up to 45 days with the parent team and be paid an NBA salary while they are there. The majority of the time, though, they'll be in the G-League. This rule is basically a way to increase pay and encourage talented players to join the league.
Each team is allowed a pair of two-way players and former Villanova guard Ryan Arcidiacono is the second for Windy City. This is a good time to mention that the former D-League is now called the G-League thanks to a sponsorship by Gatorade.
Blakeney should be fun to watch as an explosive scorer. He poured in 33 points during an exhibition game against the expansion Wisconsin Herd on Wednesday.
"He definitely rose to the occasion (at summer league)," Henry said. "We went into the week wanting to give him a look. We lost some guys, his role increased and he definitely seized his opportunity.
"Not only being a scorer, but we're also challenging him to make plays for his teammates, which is something I think he showed strides here this last week with us."
Henry is taking over as head coach of Windy City after assisting Fred Hoiberg on the Bulls' staff the past two years. Henry and last year's Windy City coach, Nate Loenser, essentially switched roles.
The Windy City roster includes five players who were with the Bulls in preseason -- Blakeney, Arcidiacono, Diamond Stone, Bronson Koenig and Jaylen Johnson. Two other players are back from last year's squad, Duje Dukan and Jon Octeus. Dukan will miss the start of the season while recovering from a knee scope.
Asked if there were any surprises in practice, Henry mentioned Brandon Wood, who came from an open tryout to make the squad. Wood, 28, is a 6-2 shooting guard who led Valparaiso in scoring twice, then played a grad season at Michigan State in 2011-12.