Trevon Bluiett Knows He Belongs. Can He Convince the NBA?
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
A New Orleans Pelican is out to prove that his NBA-ready jump shot is only part of the package.
By Matt Foley
Even as an “out-of-shape, chubby kid,” Trevon Bluiett has always been a shooter. Back then, shooting was his trump card. Unable to speed past defenders, he shot them out of the gym. And so it goes a dozen years later. He’s still getting buckets, but much like his younger self, Bluiett remains an underestimated threat on the hardwood.
So, he keeps shooting.
A four-year starter and second-team All-American as a senior at Xavier University last season, Bluiett was not picked in June’s 2018 NBA draft. At 6-foot-6, 198 pounds, and with a coveted 3-point shooting range (41.7 percent last season), Bluiett seems exactly the type of shooting guard that NBA general managers crave. But young “positionless” athletes who do everything from defend the rim to handle the rock are all the rage these days, and Bluiett is discernibly not that.
At 23, he’s one of the NBA’s oldest rookies, and he needs to improve his defense and playmaking ability to consistently command playing time. Following Bluiett’s impressive four games at NBA Summer League in Las Vegas in July, the New Orleans Pelicans signed him to a two-way contract — meaning he’ll split time between New Orleans and the G League. He doesn’t expect to be in the minor leagues for long. “Staying [at Xavier] that last year helped me develop mentally, and I feel like I’m ready,” Bluiett said at summer league. “Ultimately, I’m here to play.”
The one-and-done-obsessed NBA assumes the worst of a player who hangs around for four years of college.
Hailing from the crossroads of Hoosier hysteria in Indiana, basketball has always been Bluiett’s love. And while he started off as a chubby adolescent, Blueitt worked himself into playing shape by the time he reached Indianapolis basketball powerhouse Park Tudor High School. For that he thanks the work ethic that comes from being raised by two athletic Marines — father Reynardo was a member of the All-Marine football team, while mother Mariam played for the All-Marine basketball team. The younger Bluiett won three state titles at Park Tudor and, after dropping more than 35 points per game as a senior, ended up eighth on the all-time Indiana scoring list. A few players he’s ahead of: Larry Bird, Oscar Robertson, Shawn Kemp, Mike Conley.
Bluiett was the best pure scorer at Xavier, but fans questioned his athleticism and work ethic, as he admitted to being “lackadaisical” during his freshman season and his team suffered early NCAA exits. That changed in 2017, when Bluiett took Xavier to the Elite Eight. In his senior year, the Musketeers went 29-6 and earned a No. 1 seed in March Madness, though they were upset in the second round.
Fans who marvel at the lightning-quick release of sharpshooters like Steph Curry and Trae Young might soon find themselves enamored with Bluiett. He’s far from the overall player that Curry has become, and lacks Young’s playmaking prowess, but it’s not uncommon for Bluiett to make an unassuming defense pay by draining a 30-foot bomb. Yet in the NBA, where long-range shots are more common, teams will have a plan to stop him.
After scoring 50 points on 12-of-17 from 3-point range in his first two summer league games, Bluiett had a target on his back. “Their goal was obviously to take his shots away,” Pelicans assistant Kevin Hanson said of the Detroit Pistons, following Bluiett’s third appearance in Las Vegas. “They game-planned for him more than he’d seen in the first two games, but he got it going in the second half.”
In the NBA, drafting one cornerstone talent can shift the fortunes of an entire franchise. Thus, youth and athleticism are a premium. Players like Bluiett are merely cogs in the wheel — signed to support the eventual centerpiece. Bluiett’s undrafted status is more a sign of the market than of his deficiencies. With no remaining college eligibility, teams knew he would be signable. So, instead, they drafted higher-risk, higher-reward projects who may never suit up. More than 26 percent of second-round draft picks never make the NBA.
In addition, the one-and-done-obsessed NBA assumes the worst of a player who hangs around for four years of college. “Four-year players are perceived to have less upside,” says ESPN analyst and scout Fran Fraschilla. “There’s an idea that they have less room to grow.”
Asked to judge the performance of his team’s clear summer league star (Bluiett) following the July 9 game against Detroit, New Orleans head coach Alvin Gentry didn’t taper expectations so much as pivot entirely to talk about Frank Jackson, who played just 16 games in one season at Duke. “I think we’re going to see a really great player when he’s healthy enough to get on the floor,” Gentry said of the 31st overall draft pick, who will have time to develop behind point guard veterans Jrue Holiday and Elfrid Payton.
Meanwhile, Bluiett has an uphill battle, but he may be able to prove his worth more immediately. “He’s shown that he’s not just a shooter, that he can be a playmaker, and I like his defense,” Gentry says. “He’s way ahead of where guys would normally be at this stage.”
In 2017, the NBA expanded rosters from 15 to 17 players, opening two slots for two-way players to alternate between the G League at the NBA club. Bluiett will play most of his rookie season in the G League, but he can spend a maximum of 45 days with the Pelicans. If he maximizes his big-league time, he can earn about $500,000. “It feels good for GMs to see that I have a place in the NBA,” Bluiett said after signing his deal. “That I bring many assets to a team, not just shooting.”
One thing we know for sure: Shooters never go out of style.