After a season long of tanking in Tampa and suffering through centerless minutes, the vindicating day that Raptors fans have been awaiting since early April is finally 72 hours away away. The 2021 NBA Draft is slated to begin at 8:00 PM Eastern Time on Thursday, July 29th, and with the best draft capital that Toronto has owned in a decade, it’s shaping up to be a monumental week for the Raptors.
After 14 spherical plastic balls bounced around in what one might mistake for an air-fryer, the Raptors were awarded with the fourth overall pick in what’s said to be a stacked draft. With that selection, experts have essentially narrowed down the Raptors choices to drafting one of Scottie Barnes from Florida State, Jalen Suggs from Gonzaga, or Jonathan Kuminga from the G-League Ignite, with betting lines heavily pegging Suggs as the next great Raptors point guard. Of course, this decision could be further complicated – or made easier, depending on how you view it – if one of Evan Mobley from USC, or Jalen Green from the G-League Ignite slips to the Raptors at #4.
Beyond the highest selection that the Raptors have owned since they drafted Andrea Bargnani first overall in 2006, they are also equipped with two mid-second rounders, at #46 and #47, thanks to the March 26th trades that sent Matt Thomas to the Utah Jazz, and Terence Davis Jr. to the Sacramento Kings. With those selections, I previously wrote about six players in brief detail whom the Raptors could target. It’s a rather deep and flat draft class, which makes the second round significantly harder to predict, but there is one more prospect that should be mentioned prior to Thursday – purely because of his archetypal intrigue and his attitude towards the game – and that’s Vrenz Bleijenbergh.
Bleijenbergh is a 6’10, 210-pound Belgian ‘swiss army knife’ of a player, who’s position is a shot-in-the-dark to categorize, which is a biproduct of his game that fits well with the modern NBA. Some scouts have classified him as a wing, which is likely where he will find most of his minutes early on in his NBA career, but with his elite size and passing ability, it’s easy to see him sliding into almost any role on the court. I had the opportunity to talk to Vrenz and discuss what he thinks his positional fit will be in the NBA.
“I can play 1-4, I just need to work on all things of my game and I think my potential is very high. So in the future I think I will play 1-4,” he responded.
It’s rare to find NBA prospects who have the ballhandling and playmaking abilities that Bleijenbergh does. There is a label that big men can earn whereby they’re a good passer given their height, and there is a separate label that big men can earn whereby they genuinely have the skills of a point guard. Vrenz fits into the latter category, and that’s what makes him so special. As an athletic 6’10 player, he’s a nightmare in transition with the ability to take long strides and cover the floor quickly, while also showing an understanding of how plays will develop. Having posted an assist-to-turnover ratio last season of 1.4, he will need to fine tune his decision making and learn to decipher safe passes from risky ones at the NBA level, however you’d still have a hard time finding a better passer than Vrenz in this year’s draft at that height – save for Scottie Barnes and Josh Giddey.
In addition to finding guys in transition, Vrenz is also very comfortable hitting players in the pick-and-roll, both on lobs and on pocket passes when his big is diving to the rim. He hasn’t consistently shown the ability to manipulate the back line of the defense at this stage in his career, but even when the help defender rotates over from the corner to guard his rolling big man, Bleijenbergh is adept at recognizing the situation and finding the open shooter in the corner.
In terms of a shot creator himself, Vrenz isn’t adept at taking the ball to the basket, simply because he lacks the athleticism, quick first step, or dazzling dribble moves to do so. He can be useful as a straight line driver off the catch, but has yet to demonstrate much skill in terms of changing directions on the drive. In the halfcourt offense, Vrenz only made 48.3% of his looks at the rim.
Another area of improvement for him will be his defense. He’s gained approximately 40 pounds since he turned pro, but he’s going to have to get even stronger to be able to box out and defend NBA forwards. With his lateral quickness, he should be able to stay in front of most 3’s and 4’s, however he’ll have trouble defending guards in space at the next level unless he can improve his flexibility and really learn to leverage his length when defending smaller players. That being said, Vrenz is a player who understands his limitations on that end of the floor, and he plays within them. He’s a good team defender, he’s a smart player, and he’s positionally sound.
Vrenz has been playing professional basketball for three years, dating back to the 2017-2018 season when he signed a long-term contract with Antwerp of the Belgian BSL, turning down offers from lucrative mid-major NCAA programs such as UCLA and Texas Tech. When I asked Vrenz about his decision to go pro in Europe instead of coming over to play in America, to which he responded that he had to finish one more year of high school in Belgium, which prompted him to sign with Antwerp. Surely he can’t have any regrets, as he’s now pegged to land somewhere in the back half of this year’s draft.
Bleijenbergh’s first year with Antwerp didn’t necessarily go as he would have dreamed. He only saw the floor for 7.5 minutes a night, and did not shoot the ball as well as he is capable of, finishing the year with a 36.4% clip from the floor. In his second season of his three-year deal, his minutes were still limited, presumably due to his skinnier frame as a teenager which did not bode well for a physical European style of basketball. Finally, during the 2020-2021 season, Bleijenbergh saw his minutes double to 26.1 per game. He took on a much greater role within Antwerp’s offense which allowed him to showcase his strengths, and prove his high upside to scouts. Despite still shooting inefficiently, the metrics can’t do his game justice. He’s what one would describe as a unicorn, and his versatility was obvious to everyone who watched him this past season, which ultimately earned him the honours of being named the 2021 Belgian League Rising Star.
Under the right development system, Bleijenbergh could definitely carve out a role for himself as a rotation player within the next couple of years. The biggest things for him to work on will be adding some strength, getting more creative with the ball, and tweaking his shot form. As for what Vrenz wants people to know about him as a person off the basketball court?
“I’m a really good person and teammate off the court. I like to have conversations with fans and stuff. In general, I’m just a good, humble person.”