Knicks Draft Watch: Belgium’s unicorn Vrenz Bleijenbergh takes a giant step to his NBA dream

Belgian prospect Vrenz Bleijenbergh grew up as a Knicks fan. Will the Knicks make his NBA dream come true?

Imagine a 6’11 point guard with a 7’1 wingspan in the NBA. That’s unheard of.

But Belgium’s best-kept secret, Vrenz Bleijenbergh, aims to become the first one. The unicorn has been flying under the radar in a country best known for its chocolates, waffles, and beer, and soccer as its no. 1 sport.

“Basketball is not really big in Belgium. The league there is also not big. That’s a bit of a negative factor in my career,” Bleijenbergh told Empire Sports Media after his workout in Sacramento last Monday. “If I had played in Spain, Italy, or France, it would have been way easier for me to be on the radar. But I just take it as it is and I’m just proving myself right now and it’s paying off.”

Bleijenbergh missed the NBA Draft Combine in Chicago after his papers were not processed on time. But ever since he arrived in the United States on the fourth of July, he’s been making up for the lost time.

From four pre-Draft workouts initially scheduled for him, that list grew to 13 teams after an impressive stint in the massive pre-Draft workout in Minnesota last week.

So far, he’s conducted workouts and interviews with Oklahoma City, Memphis, Minnesota, New York, Sacramento, and now he’s in Charlotte. Next on his tight schedule is Atlanta, New Orleans, Dallas, Toronto, San Antonio, Cleveland, and Milwaukee.

The dizzying schedule has kept his body sore. But he’s embracing the pain.

As the cliche goes, “No pain, no glory.”

“I got like 13 workouts in 20 days. It’s really tough for me. I had a 20-hour flight from Belgium and have been traveling to different cities since then. It’s been tough, but if you have a goal, and it’s your dream, you got to go through all the pain and gotta show up,” Bleijenbergh said.

His workout with the Knicks over the weekend included first-round prospects Joshua Primo of Alabama and Jaden Springer of Tennessee. There were six of them who worked out with Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau walking around the facility as his skills coaches put them on different kinds of drills.

“I had a great workout with [Knicks], all of them by the way. But in New York, it was a lot of 3-on-3, 1-on-1 basketball. A lot of shooting too,” he said.

The Belgian prospect has an affinity to the Knicks because he grew up watching them.

“When I was a young kid, I’m really a New York Knicks fan because of Carmelo Anthony. I really liked the Garden. My best friend is also a die-hard Knicks fan,” Bleijenbergh said. “I watched them last year. They had like a bad year before and this year seemed better. And I hope for them to keep going and do better.”

He hopes he made quite an impression to become part of that special group under Thibodeau. He had a great interview with the team, including a talk with GM Scott Perry.

Bleijenbergh grew up in a small town called Brasschaat, known as a park town in Belgium. There are no skyscrapers. But it has its own version of the SoHo district with a long high street lined with various shops, cafes, and bars.

“New York is a great city. It’s one of the biggest cities in the US. There’s a big difference compared to Belgium. But I really like the people around here,” Bleijenbergh said. “So, New York has really been great as a franchise but I would love to go to the team that really believes in me, that will really work with me to reach my potential.”

His potential has always been there since he held a ball 16 years ago.

“I started playing basketball when I was four years old with the same club I’m still in it. I’ve been with the same club for 16 years now. I grew up from the youth [team] to the second team and to the first team and I’m kinda trying to make the next step,” he said.

Bleijenbergh led Belgium to a bronze medal finish in the 2018 FIBA U18 European Championship Division B in Macedonia. He was named to the All-Tournament Team after averaging 13.5 points, eight rebounds, a tournament-high six assists, and two blocks per game.

At the age of 16, he left high school and focused on his NBA dream. He turned pro, declining offers from big NCAA programs such as UCLA, Arizona, Texas Tech, and Kentucky, among others.

“In Belgium, it’s difficult to combine school and basketball. I didn’t finish high school yet so I can’t go to college. So, I decided to go pro at 16 years old,” Bleijenbergh said.

He felt that playing against grown men will fast-track his development.

“I always wanted to be an NBA player. But I really think I became closer [to my dream] when I started playing for the U16, U18 team for Belgium. That’s when it hit me that I really wanted to be a professional player,” he explained.

“When I became a professional player, I really wanted to go to the NBA because it’s just like a dream for everyone. But when I became stronger, I grew taller, and I was like 18, I was really thinking about the possibility of playing against great basketball players. I really felt I could make it because of the talent I got and the hard work I put in. So, when I turned 18, I really decided to go all-in for it,” he added.

He played point guard even though he was tall enough to play the wing or even the center position. His court vision and passing skills have held him back from being pigeonholed as a big man, making him such an intriguing prospect at a time when basketball has become positionless.

“I was always a point guard even at my younger age,” Bleijenbergh said. “I was a backup point guard when I started my professional career and I was really lucky that I have the best court vision at my young age. Because in Belgium, if you’re tall, you’re a center and if you’re small, you’re a point guard. But I always had the vision and the passing skill to be a point guard. So now I’m a 6’11 point guard.”

His rare combination of size and unique skill set has drawn him to another European unicorn Luka Doncic from Slovenia. The Dallas Mavericks’ rising superstar is the one guy he’s been looking up to as no player in Belgium made it to the NBA. Former NBA journeyman DJ Mbenga technically was the first Belgian to play in the NBA, but he’s a Congolese who holds a dual citizenship with Belgium.

Bleijenbergh has been diving into Doncic’s films a lot after practice.

“I really like his game, how he plays and how he sees the floor. I really look up to him,” he said. “What I liked most about Luka’s game is the way he plays the pick and roll game, how he finds open teammates, how he’s creating space for himself, how he’s shooting the ball out of pick and rolls, finding the roll man. That’s how I like to play, too.”

Scouts have raved about Bleijenbergh’s playmaking and ballhandling. He runs the floor in a fluid motion for his size.

It also helps that he’s played against NBA-caliber talent, getting necessary experience against the likes of Milos Teodosic, Marco Belinelli, and one-time Knick Mindaugas Kuzminkas, among others.

His numbers consistently jumped throughout his first three years as a pro. Antwerp Giants eased him into the rotation, starting with 7.5 minutes per game until it peaked at 26.1 minutes last season. He averaged 9.5 points, 4.8 rebounds, 3.5 assists, 1.3 steals, and 0.6 blocks per game with a 38/34/68 shooting split in his final season in Belgium’s pro league.

His shooting percentages aren’t that solid, but his shooting motion has been fluid. Despite his length, he’s only averaged two free throws a game, as he mostly operated from the perimeter.

It’s something that he’s working on as he prepares to jump to the NBA.

“Getting stronger – I think that’s the biggest thing I need to improve on. My talent is there but I think if I get just a little bit stronger, the more I can create space for my teammates. It will be easier for me to finish strong closer to the basket,” he said.

Coming from Europe, where the game is played differently, Bleijenbergh is confident that he can easily adapt to the NBA.

“[The game here is] more of an isolation game. I’m a team player. In Europe, we do a lot of sets, a lot of team plays. Here’s a little bit different – more on isolation game and talent. It’s also good for me because I’m very versatile and can play many different positions. I like to be here, and I’m really enjoying it,” he said.

“I can play with the ball in my hands, play off the ball. I can catch and shoot. I can go into a defensive role. I can spot up. I can find open teammates. I’m pretty long, athletic, and pretty quick so I can also go on the open floor, grab rebounds and run it to keep the tempo up. So that’s the kind of player I am.”

Bleijenbergh had been encouraged by the feedback he’s been receiving from the teams he visited so far. His confidence is growing after every workout.

“I think I have the chance to get picked in the first round. I’m just a little bit under the radar,” Bleijenbergh said. “I’ve been grouped with a lot of lottery picks and maybe I was even better in the workouts. But we’ll see. It’s difficult for guys from Belgium, who’s not predicted to be in the first round. But I think I’m a first-round talent. I’m really positive about it.”

European prospects have become a hit-or-miss target recently, except for Doncic, who is a generational talent. Bleijenbergh doesn’t come from a European nation with a reputation for producing NBA players. But there are signs that he’s the chosen one in his country to become a trailblazer.

“It’s not a lot of pressure because nobody has reached it yet,”Bleijenbergh said. “So, I’m trying to be the first one, and it’s going to be a big achievement for me because I’m really working hard on it. I really want to make it. And it’s also good to put Belgium on the map. I always love to play for my country.”

Follow this writer on Twitter: @alderalmo

Magic Johnson on Knicks: ‘Superstars are gonna want to play here now’

The days are gone that superstars would avoid the New York Knicks like a plague.

That’s how Magic Johnson views the current Knicks situation following a surprising turnaround this season.

Appearing as a guest on Keyshawn, JWill & Zubin radio show, Johnson said the Knicks have become a viable destination.

“Superstars are gonna want to play here now (in New York),” Johnson said.

The former Lakers executive explained how players think and play out a possible scenario.

“I think because they made the run and got to the playoffs. And the city is alive about the Knicks, right? I think guys are now looking at and say, ‘Hey man, if I put myself in that lineup with Julius (Randle), (Immanuel) Quickley, (RJ) Barrett and on, and on. Hey, man, we could do something special.’ Because that’s what guys wanna see,” Johnson said.

“If I put my talent with those guys, can we make a run for the championship? And that guy will talk to another guy and that’s how it’s gonna get started. And Julius Randle, I think guys would want to play with him because he plays hard, he’s a team player. He’s tough and rough,” he added.

Johnson said he’s glad that he had a hand in Randle’s development with the Lakers.

Randle, who left Los Angeles for New Orleans when LeBron James took his talent to Hollywood, finally found a home in New York. His hard work paid off with his first All-Star appearance, a spot in the All-NBA Second Team, and the Most Improved Player award on top of leading the Knicks to the first round of the playoffs.

While the Knicks, under former super-agent turned league executive Leon Rose, have finally found stability, the rest of the league is in a state of flux.

Some of the league’s stars enter the summer with their future in question.

Damian Lillard openly aired his frustrations in Portland following another first-round exit. Washington’s Bradley Beal has one year left in his extension with a new coach coming in. Luka Doncic just lost the executive who handed him the keys to the Mavericks’ franchise. Zion Williamson will be having his third coach in three seasons in New Orleans’ small market. Joel Embiid and the Philadelphia 76ers are reeling from a second-round upset, in large part, due to Ben Simmon’s broken jumper.

Seven teams are searching for a new coach. Established superstars fell one by one in the first two rounds, failing to survive the pandemic-condensed season. There’s a new order in the league. There will be a new champion this season.

Then there’s the Summer Olympics in Tokyo which could become another breeding ground for a future super team.

For the first time in decades, the Knicks have more to offer than just money and the bright lights of Broadway. They finally have a culture and a young playoff core to pair with their large cap space of more than $50 million.

Magic Johnson always tweets the obvious as a reaction to what’s happening around the league. This time, he’s manifesting the obvious direction of the Knicks’ franchise.

There’s a perfect storm waiting to happen in New York.

Can the Knicks capitalize?

Follow this writer on Twitter: @alderalmo

 

Randle’s summer comes to the fore after his 44 lifts Knicks to 5th straight win

julius randle, knicks

Returning to the place where the seed of his transformational season was planted, Julius Randle’s game sprouted like a tall bamboo.

His seventh season is turning out to be his best one yet, but it also had its shares of lows, including a 25-percent shooting nightmare in a loss to his hometown team Dallas at the beginning of the month.

Randle bent but didn’t break. Just like bamboo.

On Friday night, Randle’s most important summer came to the fore as he scored a season-high-tying 44 points to carry the New York Knicks to a 117-109 win over the Mavericks.

“He prepared himself for this. You can’t overlook that,” Tom Thibodeau said of Randle’s performance. “I knew when I saw him the first time in the summer—the type of shape that he was in. I’ve had a number of players throughout my career that prepared themselves extremely well in the offseason so they can handle the workload they’re gonna have.”

After a disappointing first season with the Knicks, Randle went home to Dallas last summer, determined to erase that stigma, and paced himself to become a true alpha.

He trained thrice a day. Like he never did before.

The result was a breakthrough All-Star season leading a surging Knicks team that keeps on surprising.

The Friday night shocker was the fifth straight victory for the Knicks that represented their longest winning streak since an eight-game run in 2014. More importantly, the win pushed them three games above .500 (30-27) and just half-game from climbing up to fourth seed in the East currently held by both Boston Celtics and Atlanta Hawks (30-26).

Randle was determined from the start, hitting his first four shots, including going 3-for-3 from the 3-point line.

He outplayed Luka Doncic, a generational talent and the new face of his hometown team, and Kristaps Porzingis, the former Knicks’ franchise player reduced to just a role-playing skilled big man.

Through three quarters, Randle already had 35, and the Knicks led by four, 83-79.

“I was locked in and focused,” said Randle, who has scored at least 30 points in his last three games. “I always love playing at home in front of my friends, in front of my family. I never take those moments for granted.”

Randle has now scored at least 20 points in his last six games against his hometown team.

But it wasn’t just an all-Randle show for the Knicks.

RJ Barrett took over at the start of the fourth quarter. After a pair of duds, Barrett returned to form, scoring 13 of his 24 points in that pivotal quarter.

With Randle, Doncic and Porzingis all taking a breather, Barrett took advantage and scored eight straight points as the Knicks built a nine-point lead, 91-82.

Frank Ntilikina, who played spot-up minutes with Alec Burks out due to the health and safety protocols, hit a three-pointer that extended the Knicks lead to a dozen, 94-82.

“We were trying to match up, taking Julius out when they took out Doncic. We felt we needed another scorer out there. That group got on a run, RJ got on a run. We went with it. I thought Frank gave us good minutes. We needed another defender out there, and I thought that was important,” Thibodeau explained.

Derrick Rose also played a significant role leading the Knicks bench with 15 points and five assists.

The Mavericks came charging back and cut the lead into half, 101-95, on a Doncic layup with 4:27 left.

Then Randle finished what he started, scoring his last nine points the rest of the way.

Randle went 16-for-29 from the floor in 41 minutes and added 10 rebounds and seven assists to become the first Knicks player since Bernard King in 1985 to have at least 40 points, 10 rebounds, and five assists in a single game.

Randle also became the first Knicks player since Carmelo Anthony in 2013-14 to have multiple 40-point games in a single season.

Porzingis led the Mavericks with 23 points and 12 rebounds but was only 8-for-20 from the field. Nerlens Noel returned from a one-game absence due to a sore ankle and did a good job defensively against Porzingis.

Noel pulled down 10 rebounds and swatted away three blocks, and scored six points for good measure.

The Knicks defense also reduced Doncic to a playmaker instead of his usual go-to-scorer role. He tied his career-high 19 assists but bled for 22 points on 16 shots.

Randle was the brightest star in Dallas this Friday night.

He was a man on a mission, leading the hottest team in the NBA. Before this 44-point explosion, he haunted his former teams—LA Lakers and New Orleans Pelicans—with 34 and 32 points, respectively.

The Knicks will meet the Pelicans again on Sunday at The Garden.

For sure, Zion Williamson and the Pelicans will try to break Randle.

They could bend him but cannot break him. And every time he bends, it’s just a matter of time before he springs back like bamboo.

Follow this writer on Twitter: @alderalmo

Mavs sink lethargic Knicks to 3rd straight loss

Luka Doncic got loose in the final quarter to power the Dallas Mavericks to an ugly 99-86 rout of the slumping New York Knicks Friday night at The Garden.

The Mavericks overcame the absence of their head coach Rick Carlisle, who tested positive for COVID-19 before the game.

Jamahl Mosley, who interviewed for the Knicks coaching job in the offseason, guided the Mavericks to their 26th win in 47 games for a firm grip of the seventh spot in West.

The loss dropped the Knicks one game under .500 (24-25), tied with the Boston Celtics for the seventh and eighth spots in the East.

Doncic delivered 13 of his 26 points in the final 9:36 while ex-Knick Kristaps Porzingis punctuated the road win with an alley-oop slam.

Doncic shot 6-for-11 in the decisive fourth quarter, converting one more field goal than the whole Knicks combined.

“It was a hard-fought game up to that point,” New York coach Tom Thibodeau said.

It was a struggle offensively for the Knicks, who shot 5-for-19 in the final frame as they only coughed up 17 points.

Despite their shooting struggles all game long, the Knicks only trailed by three, 78-75, early in the fourth.

Then Jalen Brunson, son of ex-Knick Rick Brunson and a former Tom Thibodeau assistant, caught fire. He combined with Doncic in a back-breaking 12-0 run to pull away for good.

Brunson finished with 15 points. Former Knicks Porzingis and Tim Hardaway, Jr. added 14 apiece.

Porzingis, who got booed lustily by a sparse Garden crowd, overcame a 2-for-11 shooting in the first half. The 2015 Knicks’ fourth overall pick made four of his six shots in the second half.

On the other hand, the Knicks’ current top three players—Julius Randle, RJ Barrett, and rookie Immanuel Quickley—were a combined 10-for-40 from the field. The entire team shot 36 percent overall.

Alec Burks paced New York with 20 points off the bench. Randle ended up with 14 points, eight rebounds, and 11 assists, but he was only 5-for-20 from the field. He also committed a team-worst five turnovers.

The Knicks looked banged up, lacking the bounce and energy in their game.

“We’re at the stage of the season where players start to feel something. We have to manage that, play better. Right now, we’re in a bit of a funk,” Thibodeau said. “We have to fight our way to get out of it.”

With their offense stagnant, the Mavericks pounced on the opportunity, punishing the Knicks inside the paint.

Dallas scored the bulk of their points around the rim, outscoring New York, 50-30 in the paint.

“We have to play with energy and share the ball,” Thibodeau lamented.

New York only had 18 assists, 11 of them coming from Randle. Derrick Rose was the only other Knick who issued more than one with four assists.

Obi Toppin was the only bright spot for the Knicks. The lottery pick finally hit his strides offensively, scoring all of his nine points in a fun stretch in the second quarter. Toppin’s explosion highlighted by a nasty putback slam over Porzingis had the Knicks jumping to a 13-point lead. But it was short-lived.

The Mavericks closed out the first half with an 18-2 run to go up by three at the break, 49-46.

It was all downhill from there.

The Knicks have barely 24 hours to recover and dig deep in their reservoir for energy as they travel to Detroit for the second game of a back-to-back schedule.

Perhaps they can find some energy from Norvel Pelle, the shot-blocking big man they recently signed to a 10-day contract in the wake of Mitchell Robinson’s foot injury.

The Pistons will also welcome back their lottery pick Killian Hayes, who hasn’t played since January with a hip injury.

New York has beaten Detroit twice this season. But with the way the Knicks are playing lately, a third straight win isn’t a guarantee.

It will get more challenging for the Knicks after the Pistons with the surging Brooklyn Nets and the Celtics on their plate next week.

Follow this writer on Twitter: @alderalmo