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Building an American Comeback: Antonio Blakeney

The last season featured a handful of professional basketball players born in the USA play abroad after having being part of the NBA or the G League in the prior two seasons. We review their 2019-20 seasons in the Chinese CBA and/or Euroleague in this series of articles, to know what they did and the chances they have to making it back to America.

2019/2020 CBA League - Guangzhou Loong Lions v Jiangsu Dragons Photo by VCG/VCG via Getty Images

There is no room at the top-tier of American professional basketball—the NBA and the G League, by extension—for everyone to be part of it. Every year we have a plethora of undrafted free agents luckily signed to contracts from NBA/G League franchises to become part of their squads. Every year, too, we see a lot of kids and veterans finding no place in the best hoop leagues in the world, thus looking for chances abroad.

That is not the most common path to building a sustainable career in the NBA, for sure, but for athletes that have worked their whole lives around basketball, it surely is one way to try to reach the pinnacle of the sport in the country where the best hoopers happen to play in.

In this series, we will explore the 2019-20 season of some American players that played basketball either in the CBA (top Asian league, and a place for ex-NBA veterans and young undrafted players) or the EuroLeague (the best-combined league in Europe and the consensus second-best league in the world only behind the NBA). All of these players also played in the NBA or the G League during the 2017-18 or 2018-19 seasons, so they are not too separated from their playing days in American soil and could still be re-called by an NBA franchise soon if they keep their level of play up.

Antonio Blakeney - Jiangsu Dragons (China - CBA)

2019/2020 CBA League - Shanxi Loongs v Jiangsu Dragons Photo by VCG/VCG via Getty Images

Since stepping on a basketball court as a kid, and simply put, Antonio Blakeney has been a true stud. And that hasn’t changed of late, mind you. No matter if he was doing it in American or Chinese soil, the two grounds Blakeney has ever known, he has always found a way to excel on the court. It’s been barely 24 years of Blakeney on this planet (he celebrated his birthday on October 4), and so far he’s been so good that even if he’s out of the US hoops-circuit these days a potential comeback to the States is definitely not out of the question in the future.

Though he was born in the very lead-guard hotbed of New York, Blakeney played high school hoops at two Florida-based preps becoming the state’s Mr. Basketball after completing his senior season. No need to mention he made the MCDAAG in 2015, of course, given his elite 29-7-3 line in his last pre-college year. No scouting service ranked him outside of the top-20 of the 2015 class, slotting him above players such as Aaron Holiday, Caleb Swanigan, Luke Kennard, Jalen Brunson, P.J. Dozier, Donovan Mitchell, and Dejounte Murray among others...

Sure, LSU landed the best prospect of that class (a certain Ben Simmons), but they put the cherry on top with the commitment of the consensus third-best SG in Blakeney. Starting next to Simmons was always going to be a problem for his ball-handling when it came to commanding the team, but it also was a blessing for his high-scoring tendencies allowing him to focus on what he does best: dropping buckets. In two years playing for the Tigers, Blakeney averaged 12.6 points per gameas a freshman (he made the SEC All-Freshman team), and raised that mark to 17.2 as a sophomore while also improving his rebounding, passing, and shooting percentages all around the court.

Two years were enough for him to declare for the NBA draft and turn pro, and if we’re honest, he really took a gamble back then in 2017. Blakeney was far from a lock to getting drafted that year. His best projection was that of becoming a 40th-to-50th-pick draftee, with the average projections leaning more toward a last-overall pick or straight undrafted expectations than anything else. And that is what happened. Blakeney didn’t hear his name on draft day, but Chicago handed him a hand in signing him as an undrafted FA for the Summer League.

Given this do-or-die chance, Blakeney took no prisoners and his performance in Las Vegas was enough to get a two-way contract. Defeating all odds once more, Blakeney went on to play 19 games for the NBA Bulls and 32 for its G-League counterpart Windy City Bulls, starting all of those 32 matches. It made all of the sense to have him logging minutes at the top level, as the G-League certainly felt not competitive enough for him—he averaged 32 points, 6.7 rebounds, and 3.9 assists in his first year there.

Blakeney entered the 2018-19 season with an NBA contract under his arm. No more two-way stuff. But the Association proved to be another completely different beast and ate Antonio a bit. While playing 57 games for a completely derailing Chicago franchise, Blakeney could only post an average 7-2-1 line in 14.5 minutes of playing time. The Bulls placed him on the starting lineup three times that season at the end of it, and in one of those he went on to play all of 32 minutes against the Blazers, a career-high mark so far.

With the Bulls featuring Zach LaVine and Kris Dunn at the guard spots, chances went dry for Antonio Blakeney and he was released in September 2019. Blakeney’s answer? He gave word to the Chinese Jiangsu Dragons, and packed his bags to join the CBA team in time for the 19-20 season. And he couldn’t have picked a better squad to be part of.

While the Jiangsu Dragons were kinda sucky last year (they finished with a 17-29 record, the 15th-best out of 20 teams for a .370 winning percentage), Blakeney played to one of the greatest levels in China during his 16 games (he suffered a Jones fracture, missing ample time although the COVID-related hiatus allowed him to recover better). Paired with Serbian-import Miroslav Raduljica, Blakeney’s raw and counting stats were never going to look high given his low number of played games. His per-game exploits, though, jumped off the page.

Blakeney finished his first year in China averaging a ridiculous 38.5 minutes per game, the fifth-highest mark in the league. That didn’t take from his game, and in fact, it actually boosted his numbers giving him all of the confidence he needed in his one and only year playing hoops out of the USA. The line tells it all: 34-8-3 on a night-to-night basis. Flex on the CBA, they call it. Not to brag about it if you don’t want to, but only four players reached that scoring average (34+), and just three paired those points with 4+ rebounds and 3+ assists. That’s Antonio for you, folks.

A lot of players (54 in total) finished the 2019-20 CBA season hitting more than 39% of the three-point shots they took. Only a few did so attempting 8+ per game as Antonio did (8.1 attempts from long range scored at a 39.2% clip): Blakeney himself, MarShon Brooks, Marcus Denmon, Jonathan Gibson, and Lestor Hudson. None of them grabbed more than Antonio’s 8.0 rpg, and only Gibson broke the 30 points per game barrier other than Blakeney. That’s very promising when looking at this man’s chances at an American comeback.

Again, just in case it has gotten lost in the text above, Blakeney played to this top-tier level in one of the best leagues in the world at just 23 years of age, in his first season out of his native country, in a place he did not know how to even ask for a glass of water when he first stepped into it.

It’d be unrealistic to expect Blakeney back in the NBA as soon as in two months, and in time for the 2021 season, but let’s not close that door. Just a few months ago, this past July, Antonio said that he’s all about returning to the CBA to prove people wrong once more and show what he can do on a basketball court, no matter the environment or place it’s at.

There have been doubts about what’s next for Blakeney after his worrying injury last season, but so far he’s shown no setbacks in his game so that seems to be of no concern from the New York-born guard. The most exciting facts about Blakeney’s potential comeback to the NBA are both his age, and how he dealt with the Bulls releasing him back in 2019, to which he responded in no time and with zero hesitation moving away from home to keep playing basketball.

That’s all there is in Blakeney’s mind, and perhaps what forces an American franchise to come calling his number. It’s just about waiting, and about staying on the lane, proving how wrong some folks were by letting him go.