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In 2014 James Blackmon Jr. had the option to play for just about any college in the nation. Coming out of Marion High School in Indiana, he was coached by his father, James Blackmon Sr., who starred for Kentucky in the 1980s.
Blackmon Jr. was a prodigy, with his silky smooth jumper, his handles and his play-making ability he ultimately chose to represent his home state Indiana Hoosiers. He picked Tom Crean’s program in Bloomington, spurning his father’s alma mater Kentucky.
The high-profile McDonald’s All-American prospect didn’t disappoint, averaging over 16 points per game during his three-year career at Indiana . However, after three seasons in Bloomington he is not in the NBA, where his fellow All-American peers are playing.
Instead, the 23-year old is playing in Italy. This season he is in the Legabasket Series A league for VL Pesaro, and he has an option in his contract to move up to the Euro League and play for Milan next season.
Upon graduating with a degree in just three years, Blackmon chose to declare early for the 2017 NBA Draft. He would go undrafted, but immediately signed with the Philadelphia 76ers the night of the draft. Although it didn’t work out the way he would of hoped he still learned a lot playing for the 76ers, all through training camp and some of the preseason.
“That situation taught me a lot,” Blackmon told Amico Hoops during a phone interview. “Playing with a lot of great players, a lot of veterans, and just guys that I looked up to before having that opportunity. Being around that I think showed me a lot about how the NBA is, and it got me better too.”
Playing at Indiana, a great basketball program, ultimately prepared James for the next level.
“Coming from Indiana a top college program, playing top competition, and the guys that I played with while I was there,” Blackmon said. “I feel like I was well prepared for now and also last year, I think that I was definitely well prepared coming from Indiana.”
Following his release in Philly, he was promptly assigned to their G-League team, the Delaware 87ers. Playing in 28 games before being traded to the Wisconsin Herd, the G-League affiliate of the Milwaukee Bucks. In his 19-game tenure in Wisconsin he averaged 16.7 points per game with a field-goal percentage of over 50 percent, shooting 43.5 percent from 3-point range and 92.7 percent from the free-throw line — the coveted 40-50-90, shooting line.
“I definitely feel like I took off with the Herd,” Blackmon said. “I feel like that was a great showing of what I could do starting off on the pro-level. Obviously you know my goal was to be in the NBA. That didn’t happen, but I think that the G-League had a lot of talent and going up against that everyday I learned a lot.”
This past summer Blackmon was a member of the Bucks’ summer league team, although it didn’t go as well as the 6-foot-4 guard wanted. He played a solid role over the first few games, but towards the end he fell out of the rotation. After the summer league in Las Vegas, Blackmon contemplated with his father, who he looks up to, about what he should do next.
The ultimate decision was Blackmon wanted to go to a place he could best portray his abilities, and after trying the G-League, it was time to see what he could do overseas.
“I felt like the best thing for me is to get back to the best James Blackmon and that’s what I feel like I’m doing right now,” Blackmon said.
Right now, Blackmon has rediscovered Blackmon. He is averaging 20.1 points per game for VL Pesaro. In recent games he is really heating up, averaging 27.6 points per game over that stretch — including a 35 point barrage last week.
“The coach basically has all the confidence in me,” Blackmon said.
No, it’s not the NBA, but Blackmon is living in Italy, has a good relationship with his teammates and is surprised by how “hostile” the environments are in the arenas; he’s fell in the love with the fans and their admiration for the game of basketball. However, the former McDonald’s All-American has seen his peers reach the NBA, and it wasn’t always easy to accept his journey to the league has been different.
“You can look at others’ journey, but I feel like everyone’s is different,” Blackmon said. “Right now I am at a point where I just want to get better for myself, and it’s really paying off.”
Although he isn’t there yet, he still has the respect of NBA players. There are several players he is close with, including Emanuel Mudiay, a point guard for the New York Knicks, who recently reached out to Blackmon expressing his admiration for his game. Blackmon said he has come to accept living in the present and just being happy. It’s likely just a matter of time before he gets another shot at the NBA.
“Me personally, I think that I will,” Blackmon said when asked if he will be an NBA player at some point. “Whatever happens you know I’m going to be happy. I think that that’s the most important thing. I’ve gotten back to being happy and just playing the way I love to play with passion and confidence.”
Everyone has a different journey to their ultimate destination. Blackmon is at peace with where he is; but clearly hasn’t given up on the ultimate goal to play at the highest level. He has gotten back to being himself and having fun; his journey at the pro-level has just begun.