Eric Bledsoe Is a Lurking Giant
In the Western Conference Semifinals last year, Russell Westbrook averaged 27.8 points, 6 rebounds, and 8.8 assists per game as the Thunder disposed of the offensive-minded Clippers in six games. Just 10 months earlier, the Clippers dealt their best defender, Eric Bledsoe, to the Suns in a three-team deal that allowed them to acquire sharpshooters JJ Redick and Jared Dudley.
In the series, Westbrook ate Clippersâ€™ backup point guard Darren Collison alive with his patented overconfident, reckless drives and 19-foot pull-up jumpers. Collison didnâ€™t know what hit him, and neither did long suffering Clippers fans. They certainly missed their departed leader of the heralded 2012-13 bench unit â€“ the Chip Clip. Bledsoe would have been the perfect antidote to the Westbrook virus, but alas, he was off terrorizing the league in Phoenix.
As a freshman at Kentucky, Eric Bledsoe was an afterthought - a minor piece of Coach John Calipariâ€™s monster inaugural Big Blue recruiting class. Bledsoe was overshadowed by John Wall's pre-game dance moves, and Demarcus Cousins' bizarre (Pero) Antics. Bled was drafted 18th by the Thunder, then flipped to the Clippers for the pick that turned out to be (gasp) Fabricio Melo.
Bledsoe played a lot his rookie year. He averaged over 22 minutes per game on a crappy 32-win Clippers team that featured heavy minutes from a hefty Baron Davis and a fresh off knee surgery Blake Griffin. Then the league-wide fiasco that netted the Clippers Chris Paul happened.
Overnight, the Clippers were contenders, and Bledsoe was relegated to the bench. After starting 25 games in his rookie campaign, Bledsoe started just one in the strike-shortened 2011-2012 season. His game, however, only improved. CP3 took him under his wing and helped turn the freak athlete combo guard into a real basketball player. Bledsoe has not looked back; here are his numbers from his first four seasons:
But those stats donâ€™t tell the whole story. The Sunsâ€™ star is a maniac on defense. Last year he graded out as the best defensive point guard in the league according to ESPNâ€™s real plus minus. He was worth 3.96 points per 100 possessions just on the defensive end - the only guard in the top 45 defensive players in the league.
How is he so much better than the competition? His lateral quickness, long arms and sheer athleticism allow him to recover faster than other guards â€“ essential defensive tools in a league quickly gravitating to high paced offenses geared around getting layups and three pointers. To boot, he can guard opposing point and shooting guards, making him a rare and sought after commodity â€“ especially in the loaded west.
Offensively, Bledsoe has room to grow. If he can improve his distance shooting (37% on threes) and free throws (77%), heâ€™ll become a two-way player nobody will want to deal with. That said, he has improved dramatically, including the oft-discussed, rarely accomplished feat of raising his usage percentage (24.9% last year) while dropping his turnover percentage (17.8%.)
His value was most evident in the standings. The Suns went 28-15 in 43 games with Bledsoe healthy and 20-19 in the 39 he missed with varying knee injuries. Had Bledsoe stayed healthy, the Suns might have made the playoffs, even in the deep west. Their devastating backcourt combo of the Dragon, Goran Dragic (9.7 nERD) and Eric â€œMini-Lebronâ€ Bledsoe (2.3 nERD) scared every contender in the Western Conference.
But Bledsoe is a restricted free agent. Restricted free agency is simple enough; any team can offer a player any amount of money within a pre-set pay scale, then the team that player currently plays for has three days to match that offer. Bledsoe is just 24 years old, likely three years away from his basketball prime, and half the teams in the league have buckets of cap space. Heâ€™s due for a raise. A big one.
Look for a bidding war to erupt among the bottom feeders of the league. Any team would be happy to lock in their defensive stopper/limitless offensive combo guard for the next four years. I also suspect the Suns will match any offer. They have tons of cap room and an influx of young players to keep their payroll down and use as trade chips for a third star player. Bledsoeâ€™s days as an afterthought are numbered. Mini-Lebron is about to cash in financially, opposing guards beware.