Antwerp's Bleijenbergh goes all-in for basketball
To encourage the development of more young local talents, the Basketball Champions League requires its teams to register at least 5 Home Grown Players on the game score sheet (if 11 or more players listed, otherwise 4 if roster has 10 or fewer players). Many of these players are considered top level talents in their respective countries and I will be taking a look at some of them over the course of the season.
ANTWERP (Belgium ) - Poker players know the risk involved in going all-in for a hand. But they consider all sides of the situation and decide it's the right time to make the move. Vrenz Bleijenbergh may not be a poker player, but the Telenet Giants Antwerp youngster is going all-in for basketball.
Bleijenbergh is one of the most intriguing talents in European basketball - a 6ft 10in (2.08m) point forward who is just starting to showcase his talents in the Basketball Champions League after already making his Belgium senior national team debut before his 19th birthday.
Antwerp fans have seen one of their own rise up through the club's ranks and make the jump to the men's team. Bleijenbergh, who hails from Brasschaat just north of Antwerp, is averaging 2.2 points, 1.0 rebounds and 1.7 assists in 12 minutes. Some of his better performances include 5 points and 5 assists against Hapoel Bank Yahav Jerusalem and 5 points, 3 rebounds and 3 assists against RASTA Vechta. In the Belgian Euromillions league, he is averaging 2.2 points, 1.7 rebounds and 2.0 assists.
"This is my first year as a pro and I just turned 19 years, but I'm pretty happy with the things I showed in my first year. But I'm pretty sure I can do much more," said Bleijenbergh, who celebrated his 19th birthday in October. "Every game is a big challenge for me. I just want to put 100 percent energy into getting the wins. Individual stats are not the most important thing."
Antwerp have struggled to a 2-7 record in a tough Group B with a three-game losing streak heading into the holiday break. But Bleijenbergh thinks the team is better than its mark.
"We are doing pretty good as a new team. A lot of key players left the team because of the success last year, but I think that we could have a better record because we had a lot of those losses that could be wins," he said.
Of course, Antwerp's head coach Roel Moors left the team after guiding them to the BCL Final Four, bringing with him starting point guard Paris Lee to Brose Bamberg in Germany while Ismael Bako went to ASVEL Villeurbanne and Tyler Kalinoski headed to Teksüt Bandirma. That meant Bleijenbergh stood good chances of more minutes after picking up 1.2 points, 1.1 rebounds and 0.7 assists in 7.6 minutes of 26 games in the Belgian league.
"Because a lot of players left the team there was a playing time opportunity for me and that helped me to show that I can really play on this level," he said.
Bleijenbergh was considering leaving Antwerp last summer - with a move to Spanish giants Barcelona a real possibility. But in the end, he decided on staying with Antwerp, with whom he had a long-term deal.
"I was close to signing with Barcelona. One of my best friends, Harris Bratanovic, is there so I knew I was going to adapt quickly. But Antwerp proposed the opportunity to play in the Basketball Champions League so I wanted to excel on this level first," said Bleijenbergh, who had signed a deal until 2023 with Antwerp in October 2018.
All-in with basketball
Penning that long-term contract with Antwerp was Bleijenbergh's all-in moment. He was banking on himself and a professional basketball career - so much so that he decided to quit school.
"I left school because I was not the best student and I had to put a lot of time into school, so I had less time for basketball. I decided then to talk with my parents and asked them if I could stop with school to put 100 percent into basketball because a lot of people were saying I was really talented and that I could become pro and have a solid career," explained Bleijenbergh, whose final school year would have been in 2019-20.
He knew he could always go back and finish school later and there was also the possibility of later taking over a business that his father owns.
No, it was chips in … let it ride.
Dribbling before he could walk
By that point, Bleijenbergh had already displayed his unusual skillset of a big man who could handle and pass the ball.
"My biggest strength is my court vision. I'm pretty tall, so using ball screens with this length is a benefit. I have good passing skills in my hands so that makes it very easy. I can shoot as well," he explained his game.
His love for the game dates back many years.
"I started playing at 4 years old, but I could dribble the ball before I even could walk," he joked.
Bleijenbergh said his grandfather played basketball professionally and while no one else in his family played the game at a high level, basketball was always a "family sport".
"That's why I like it so much," he added.
Bleijenbergh says he really enjoys playing point forward. And he said putting in a lot of individual work between 10 and 16 years of age really paid off.
Bleijenbergh's progress was not lost on the leaders of Belgian basketball as he played at the FIBA U16 European Championship 2016, Division B, averaging 9.5 points, 7.6 rebounds, 1.0 assists and 1.0 blocks a game as the Belgians finished seventh. A summer later, he was playing a year up at the FIBA U18 European Championship 2017, Division B and he collected 5.9 points and 4.0 rebounds for a ninth-placed Belgium team.
Bleijenbergh's first standout summer came in 2018 as he guided Belgium to third place at the FIBA U18 European Championship, Division B and was named to the All-Star Five as he averaged 13.5 points, 8.0 rebounds, a tournament-high 6.0 assists, 1.1 steals and 2.0 blocks. The thrills were dampened though as Belgium could not be promoted to Division A as Greece had been already assigned as hosts of the 2019 U18 European Division A competition and only two teams could make the jump from Division B.
"We had the bronze medal at the U18 European Championship (Division B), so it was like a good and bad feeling: taking the win over Estonia for the medal but not going back to Division A was painful," said Bleijenbergh as Belgium missed their chance to get back to the top flight for the first time since 2014.
No to college, BCL debut
That disappointment was just one of many meaningful moments in 2018 for Bleijenbergh.
After his excellent U18 European performance a number of major colleges in the United States offered Bleijenbergh scholarships, including Arizona, Texas Tech and UCLA. In the end though, he signed the deal with Antwerp.
"I had very good offers from high major schools. I think if I was still a student I could have seriously considered going to college, but I had to chose between professional and college basketball. I preferred professional basketball, and I was afraid I would not be eligible to play," he explained.
Armed with his long-term commitment from the club, Bleijenbergh made his professional debut in 2018 - already in October at the start of the season while also playing in the Belgian second flight Top Division. Even before signing his contract, Bleijenbergh even got to play in the Basketball Champions League qualifying campaign, picking up 3 points, 5 rebounds, 1 assist and 2 steals in the return leg of the Qualification Round 1 against AEK Larnaca. He also played in the second leg of the Qualifcation Round 2 against Red October Cantu in September.
Moors also called Bleijenbergh's number five times in the BCL Regular Season, including against major opponents such as AEK Athens and Hapoel Jerusalem.
"Last year we had a very strong team, so my minutes were really small, which I had to understand. But the games I played last year I picked up a lot of experience. Every game I play in the BCL is a big experience for me and being able to showcase my talent," said Bleijenbergh, who totalled 3 points, 4 rebounds and 1 assist in a combined 22 minutes.
Belgian senior national team
Bleijenbergh did not play any BCL games after late January 2019, but a basketball dream came true on February 24, 2019 when he made his debut for Belgium's senior national team in the FIBA EuroBasket 2021 Pre-Qualifiers.
Vrenz Bleijenbergh's Belgian senior national team debut
"I was very nervous but also proud to represent my country at the senior level. I really like playing for the national team," said Bleijenbergh, who at 18 years hit one three-pointer for 3 points in 5:46 minutes against Iceland in the home game in Mons.
When asked what he thought when Belgian national team coach Dario Gjergja called his name to enter the game against Iceland, Bleijenbergh said: "I just thought to myself: Just play your game, don't do anything else."
There was a certain comfort level for Bleijenbergh, who had Antwerp teammates Thomas Akyazili, Ismael Bako and Hans Vanwijn on the Belgian team for the game.
"It took some pressure of me, because I knew I had teammates I could count on and this helped me a lot," he admitted.
BCL Final Four experience
Bleijenbergh had another magical experience with those Antwerp teammates later in 2019 as the club reached - and hosted - the BCL Final Four. While he was not on the roster for the spectacle, Bleijenbergh loved being part of the festivities.
"It's true, I missed being selected for the team because we added a new player mid season but other than that I did everything with the team, which I really appreciated. But my favorite part was the win against Bamberg for the third place, even if I was not with the team. The whole year we had to work for this and it was a great reward," Bleijenbergh recalled.
All of those events helped give Bleijenbergh even more confidence than he already had going into the FIBA U20 European Championship 2019, Division B. And he stepped up with an outstanding performance in helping Belgium finish third - and this time earn promotion to Division A, for the first time since 2016.
"It was a really great moment in my career: playing a big country like Russia for third place and qualifying for Division A. The same thing as the year before but with the promotion. It was just so great to take that win over Russia. I can't even explain the feeling," said Bleijenbergh, who averaged 9.3 points, 6.6 rebounds, 5.6 assists and 2.6 steals to earn a spot on the All-Star Five.
Bleijenbergh, who was playing a year younger in Portugal, called the third-place finish his biggest accomplishment thus far in his career.
A nightmare for doubters
After then committing to Antwerp instead of heading to Barcelona, Bleijenbergh is now focused on getting victories for the Giants - however he is needed.
"My goal is to help win the game, even if it's a defensive or offensive role. Bringing a lot of energy is also a big aspect," he said.
Bleijenbergh's long term goal is to play in the NBA, but now his attention is to keep Antwerp near the top in the Belgian league and get back into the race for the Playoffs in the BCL.
2020 will be a nightmare for the ones who did not believe in me— Vrenz Bleijenbergh (@Vrenzzz) December 30, 2019
Another goal is prove wrong any doubters in his game, as he tweeted: "2020 will be a nightmare for the ones who did not believe in me."
"I just feel like some people think I can't do this or I can't do that. So I am trying to prove them wrong this year."
For sure, Vrenz Bleijenbergh has pushed in all his chips and is going all-in.