Dig Baton Rouge

Moving Forward: Blakeney leads LSU into uncertain future

The phrase is called one-and-done, and it’s used to describe those college basketball players that are so good that they attend school for just one year before choosing to go to the NBA.

Shooting guard Antonio Blakeney knows all about that moniker. How could he not? It’s been given to him since he was 16-years-old – long before he signed with LSU and long before he ever officially played a college basketball game.
But after a humbling freshman season filled with moments that were good, bad and ugly, Blakeney lifted the one-and-done tag off his back and opted to return to LSU for his sophomore season.

His hope is to lead the Tigers to a land they haven’t been in a while—among the upper echelon of programs in the college basketball landscape. Blakeney’s return was a game changer for LSU basketball—a decision that greatly altered the Tigers’ expectations for the upcoming season.
The 6-foot, 4-inch guard averaged 12.6 points and 3.4 rebounds per game last season, while firmly entrenching himself as one of the top returning players in the SEC.

Tigers coach Johnny Jones said Blakeney’s offseason has been great, and he’s anxious to play looser and freer in 2016-17. Jones said the returning guard is a team leader and a huge piece to the puzzle that is the team’s season.

“It was music to our ears when Antonio came out and said he would be returning for his sophomore season,” Jones said at his preseason news conference. “He had a chance to forego his sophomore season, and it showed maturity for him to pull out (of the draft) as quick as he did. … He has a chance to make an impact on the team. … I think he’s one of those guys you would automatically look to as someone projected to be a leader of this year’s team.”

For Blakeney, basketball prowess isn’t new.

It’s something he’s dealt with his whole life.

A Florida native, Blakeney was a teenage sensation in high school—one of the most highly sought after recruits in his graduating class.

He was considered a Top 20 player in America by Rivals, ESPNU and 24/7 Sports—all authorities in college basketball recruiting.

He earned that moniker after averaging 29.0 points and 6.9 rebounds per game for Oak Ridge High School in Orlando – one of the top prep basketball programs in the country.

Blakeney chose LSU over a who’s who of college basketball programs—a list which included Kentucky, Duke, Louisville and North Carolina, among others.

At the time of his commitment, Blakeney was expected to be the Robin to All-Everything recruit Ben Simmons’ Batman—the second cog in a one-two punch that hoped to put LSU atop the college basketball world.

“We expect to come in and win,” Blakeney said last season. “We want to make an impact right away. We know we have to earn it, but we think we can be among the top teams. We believe we have everything right here that it takes.”

But it was a struggle early for Blakeney, which put his “one-and-done” status in jeopardy.

It all started OK. Blakeney had 22 points in his first college game—a win against McNeese State. Two games later, he had 22 points again in a win against South Alabama.

But as the season wore on, Blakeney hit a freshman wall. From Nov. 23 – Jan. 19, Blakeney scored in double figures just six times in 15 games. He shot 17-of-66 (25 percent) from the 3-point-line – a cold stretch while often took him out of the rotation late in those games.

“We’ve got to get Antonio going,” Jones said in the middle portion of last season. “Right now, he’s searching. Right now, we need him to find it.”

He did, and he believes it’s momentum that will carry into the new year. After the wintertime struggles, Blakeney found life in the back-end of 2015-16. By the end of the season, he may have been LSU’s best player.

The combo guard averaged 18.6 points per game over LSU’s final 11 games, which raised the possibility again of the guard foregoing his final three seasons of eligibility for a shot at the NBA.

But after consulting with friends and family, Blakeney said he had unfinished business in Baton Rouge—a decision that he said was made because he wants to make his mark on college hoops this season.

“I think it is in my best interest to retun and continue to improve as I strive and prepare to be the best I can be,” Blakeney said at the time of his decision. “I believe I can further improve my skill set in different areas to become even more effective for my team in the future.”

And for LSU, that time is now.

Blakeney is one of several returnees off last year’s squad which posted a 19-win season, but was widely considered to be a disappointment because it failed to make the NCAA Tournament.

In addition to Blakeney, LSU brings back veteran post Craig Victor II—a player capable of making plays both on the perimeter and in the paint. The Tigers will also heavily count on sophomore Brandon Sampson and a talented freshman and transfer group that’s led by Blue Chip guard Skylar Mays, who’s expected to make an immediate impact in his true freshman season.

But make no mistake about it, LSU will go as Blakeney goes in the new season, and the Tigers need the standout guard to continue the momentum he build at the end of last season.

Blakeney said he has no doubt he can do it, adding that he’s been looking forward to this season since the day he decided not to enter the NBA Draft.
Jones agrees, adding that the guard will be a huge factor in everything LSU does this year.

No, he’s not a one-and-done, but that doesn’t mean he’s not one heck of a college basketball player.

“He’s a great player, and we’re so happy to have him back,” Jones said. “He is a leader here. I think he’s taken ownership of that. I think he’s ready for the challenge.”

LSU opens its season on Nov. 7 with an exhibition against Reinhardt.

Photo by Sean Gasser.

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