Ben Simmons wasn’t the only five-star recruit that hit Louisiana State University’s campus in the fall of 2015, and he wasn’t alone in hoping that NBA dreams would soon become reality.
Antonio Blakeney entered college as a five-star shooting guard recruit — ranked No. 15 overall in the class of 2015 by ESPN — out of Orlando, Fl., and following a decent freshman year, batted around the idea of bolting LSU for the NBA. Instead, Blakeney stuck around for another season to build up his résumé and make sure he was ready for the grind of the next level.
“Mainly because I thought I was more ready,” Blakeney told Basketball Insiders about his choice to leave college following his sophomore season. “Ready to do whatever it takes to stick in the NBA. It’s not always about getting there. I was thinking about coming after my freshman year, but I don’t think I was more ready mentally. Off the court wise, just making sure my head’s on the right track. I’m totally focused, ready to do whatever it takes to stick in the league.”
Despite producing 17.2 points per game this past season, good enough for fifth in the SEC, Blakeney didn’t receive an invite to the official NBA Draft Combine. Instead, he found himself in his hometown of Orlando at the Pro Basketball Combine from May 15-17 working out in front of prospective employers.
However, the 6-foot-4 guard isn’t letting that slight shake his focus. If anything, Blakeney thinks the snub could benefit his work ethic.
“Just a chip on my shoulder, more fuel to my fire,” Blakeney said. “I’m willing to do whatever it takes to get to the next level. Whether it’s the combine, or this, or whatever team workout, I’m willing to do it. It is what it is, I didn’t make it but it’s okay, it’s just something I didn’t make.”
Coming out of high school Blakeney was pegged as a scorer and someone who could get a bucket from any level of the court. After registering a 54.9 true shooting percentage in college, Blakeney used the Pro Basketball Combine stage to show NBA personnel that his shot could certainly translate to the next level.
— Alex Kennedy (@AlexKennedyNBA) May 16, 2017
Along with displaying his shooting touch, Blakeney showed off some NBA athleticism as well, ranking third overall out of all participants with a 10.41-second lane agility drill.
While it may not have been the official combine, Blakeney still enjoyed the opportunity to get out there and compete with some talented players.
“It was fun,” Blakeney said. “Some great players here with Austin (Nichols) and James Blackmon, guys like that. So it was fun to go out there and compete, to have fun and keep getting better.”
But to Blakeney, combine snubs, shooting percentages, draft evaluations and all other factors that arise during a pre-draft process don’t mean anything following draft night. Once those 60 picks are off the board, it’s all about who can play and who can’t.
“The draft process and the draft after June 22 doesn’t mean as much,” Blakeney said. “They got guys who go number one that may not pan out, and then you got guys like Jonathon Simmons who didn’t get drafted, he made it the D-League way. You got guys who were second round picks like Draymond Green and Manu Ginobili. So after the draft, the draft doesn’t matter anymore. Just like after you leave high school, your ranking, none of that stuff matters anymore it’s about what you do at the next level.”
Of course, none of that matters at all if the player doesn’t have what it takes to play basketball at the highest level in the world. But don’t look to Blakeney as someone who doesn’t believe they can make the cut.
“I definitely feel like I’m an NBA player,” Blakeney said. “I feel like I have an NBA work ethic, NBA competitiveness.”
PODCAST: Lonzo’s Shot, How To Cut Luol Deng and More
Basketball Insiders publisher Steve Kyler and Senior NBA writer and salary cap guru Eric Pincus talk about Lonzo Ball and the unreasonable expectations some have had about his rookie campaign, what the Lakers could do with Luol Deng, teams that have cap exceptions and could likely use them, which teams are for real and more.
Johnson Is Leading By Example In Philadelphia
Amir Johnson may not be a star player, but his impact on the locker room is a constant in Philadelphia.
After every home win, the Philadelphia 76ers have a miniature liberty bell in their locker room that gets rung by a selected player, usually the who had the biggest impact on the game.
On Monday night, Amir Johnson got to the ring the bell after the Sixers beat the Utah Jazz 107-86 to secure their ninth win of the season. Johnson turned in his best performance since joining Philadelphia this offseason, with eight points, 13 rebounds and four blocks in 21 minutes of playing time as Joel Embiid’s substitute.
Up until about 45 minutes before the 7 p.m. tipoff, Embiid’s status was unclear due to knee soreness. Johnson would’ve been tasked with the starting role had his teammate been unable to perform. Instead, he fulfilled his backup role to perfection, which has been the status quo for Johnson so far this season.
When the Sixers signed Johnson to a one-year $11 million deal in July, it was for the purpose of shaping a young roster with some veteran leadership. Management wanted to ensure there would be a professional in the locker room to help navigate the likes of Embiid and Ben Simmons through a full NBA season, with hopes of making it to the playoffs.
“When we looked to build our roster and sort of identify people we started talking about Amir Johnson,” Brett Brown said. “And Bryan was way more familiar with Amir — this is to Bryan’s credit — than I was, because of his Toronto background. And I started digging in and calling his teammates. I’ve been in the league for a long time, so you follow him, and you speak to people like Evan Turner. You know, tell me about Amir when you were in Boston and so on.”
While Brown was doing his research on Johnson, he came across an impressive level of continuity when it came to how others viewed the center.
“It’s amazing to a man how consistent the reviews were,” Brown said of Johnson. “People skills, work his butt off, could handle swinging a towel or coming in and making a difference. He’s a good person and he’s a pro. To be able to bring him in the game and now worry about is he happy, is he fresh, is he in shape, does he need 10 shots? It isn’t ever on my mind with Amir.”
The Sixers’ head coach seems honest in his assessment, and Johnson’s fluctuating level of productivity and use reflects that. Prior to his big night against Utah, Johnson logged a combined 21 minutes over the team’s previous four games — including two DNP’s, both coming against the Golden State Warriors.
Still, just barely over a month into this new season, the Sixers are trying to iron out the kinks in their lineup. With injuries to Richaun Holmes, Markelle Fultz, Jerryd Bayless and Justin Anderson over the course of the season so far, finding a set group of guys and defining their roles has been a tricky situation to maneuver.
Last season, Johnson started 77 games for the Boston Celtics during their campaign that ran all the way to the Eastern Conference finals. His one start in 14 games this season, with a cut in minutes per game, is a far cry from the level of use Johnson experienced just one year ago. But coming into this season, that was known. Johnson’s role would be to help guide his junior counterparts and chip in where he could.
So far, the deal is paying dividends on both ends.
“It’s huge for us,” Simmons said. “Having a guy come off the bench and play a role like that. As a vet, he’s one of the leaders. He comes in, plays hard, doesn’t ask for more minutes or anything like that. He’s a great player.”
In a game that featured the absence of Jazz star center Rudy Gobert, Johnson was able to make his presence more prevalent during his reserve minutes. Along with his four blocks, Johnson had a game-high 15 contested two-point shots. As a team, Utah shot just 35.3 percent from the field.
Backing up a superstar in the making in Embiid, Johnson has limited time to let it be known that he’s still around. That situation is magnified on nights that Holmes is seeing extended run as well. But in his 13th season in the league, Johnson knows a thing or two about finding ways to be effective and efficient.
“Finding my way on the floor, knowing the amount of time I have, just finding ways I can help my teammates,” Johnson said. “I watch a lot of film. Just for me to find open spots, set screens, and the biggest part that I can help this team out, is just play defense and grabbing rebounds.”
On the nights where Johnson doesn’t get his number called — a la games against the Warriors and other small-ball teams — the veteran just continues to do what he was brought in to do in the first place, lead by example.
“Just sticking to my routine,” Johnson said. “Being mentally prepared, getting my teammates ready, just being a professional, doing all kind of things to prepare for a game.”
After being around the come up in Boston, Johnson knows there are bigger things at stake for the Sixers than a few minutes here and there on the court. To him, winning is the only thing that matters.
“When you don’t play and you win, man it’s like and that’s all that matters,” Johnson said. “We’re here to try and do one goal, and that’s win games and make the playoffs, and go from there on.”
Whether he’s on the bench waving a towel, or on the court making a play, Johnson will continue to lead a young group of talented players by example, hopefully culminating in a trip to the playoffs.
“He is a legitimate pro, on and off the court,” Brown said. “He’s a wonderful teammate.”
NBA PM: Marcus Morris’ Return Bolsters The Celtics
With the Boston Celtics riding high with a league-best 16-game win streak, the return of forward Marcus Morris has provided a lift.
Boston Celtics GM Danny Ainge made a huge personnel gamble this summer that changed four starters from a roster that reached the Eastern Conference Finals. One of the less-heralded among the new starters — forward Marcus Morris, who arrived from the Pistons in a surprise trade for starting shooting guard Avery Bradley — has proven to be a key component in Boston’s early success.
After missing the first eight games of the season due to lingering knee soreness, Morris has scored in double figures in six of nine appearances. Following Saturday’s win over the Hawks in Atlanta — the 15th of the current 16-game win streak — Celtics coach Brad Stevens said Morris’ contributions have been vital, even as Stevens continues to monitor his minutes.
“We need Marcus quite a bit,” said Stevens. “We’re still managing his minutes appropriately as he comes back. Hopefully, that continues to be more and more and more.”
Morris was plus-18 against the Hawks, 10 points better than any other starter, despite being the only starter with single-digit shot attempts. Stevens added that Morris’ offense has been a boost despite few plays being run for him.
“He brings us scoring, he brings us defense [and] he brings us toughness,” said Stevens. “I think we really need his scoring, like his ability to shoot the ball both off broken plays and off movement.”
Morris’ emergence as an offensive threat was noted in the offseason by an Eastern Conference forward in an anonymously-sourced piece on underrated players by HoopsHype’s Alex Kennedy.
“I think Marcus Morris is really underrated,” the forward told Kennedy. “He can play multiple positions and he went from being a role player to someone who scores the ball really well. When other players have made that leap, they got more attention. Take Chandler Parsons, for example. When Chandler made big strides, he got a ton of attention and a huge contract. Marcus hasn’t gotten the recognition or the payday that he deserves.”
While some questioned the wisdom of trading Bradley, a starter for a team that had a lot of success and remained on the rise, Celtics center Al Horford — the sole remaining starter from last season — said he was looking forward to playing with Morris once the trade was announced.
“He’s one of the guys that really excited me once we got him this offseason, just because of everything he’s going to be able to bring,” said Horford. “I don’t think he’s at his best yet. He’s doing okay. But he’s just going to keep getting better. So that’s a good thing for us.”
With the knee injury that lingered after the start of the season, Horford said the team is still getting accustomed to the diverse set of tools Morris brings to the court.
“Marcus is great,” said Horford. “Defensively, his presence is felt. On offense I think he’s finally starting to get into a rhythm. He’s getting more comfortable [and] we’re getting more comfortable with him. It’s a matter of time.”
While Stevens and Horford both feel that we haven’t seen Morris at his best, his return to action was timely as it bolstered the lineup during the current win streak. Horford, who was part of a 19-game win streak for the Hawks during the 2014-15 season, was asked how Boston is approaching its current prosperity. Horford said that, like his former Hawks team, the Celtics are avoiding the subject in the locker room.
“We’re not honestly really talking about it much,” said Horford. “That winning streak here was pretty special. We were playing at a high level. We didn’t talk about it here either and we’re taking that type of approach. We’re just playing and enjoying the game out there.”
With Boston carrying the current streak into a Wednesday visit to Miami, Ainge’s surprising trade for Marcus Morris is looking more and more prescient. If his best is yet to come, as his coach and teammates maintain, the recognition that has elluded Morris could be just around the corner.