"Then & Now & Later" is a scouting profile series that analyzes the perception, development and potential of young players in the NBA. Previous editions tackled Anthony Davis and Ricky Rubio and Kyrie Irving. Up now: Eric Bledsoe.
As a 6-foot-1 high school kid from Alabama, Eric Bledsoe had the confidence to tell Kentucky coach John Calipari, of all people, that he “didn’t care who else he was recruiting.” And even with John Wall running the point and DeMarcus Cousins hogging the headlines in his first season with the Wildcats, Bledsoe entered the draft as a freshman.
That decision was a surprise to some. A late bloomer in high school, Bledsoe didn't benefit from years of big exposure prior to Kentucky, and he was at best a third option offensively while playing there. Largely because of this, he fell out of the lottery to the 18th pick, where then-Los Angeles Clippers general manager Neil Olshey did something almost completely unheard of during Donald Sterling’s reign of terror: traded up to get him.
Olshey’s risk would soon be rewarded. Baron Davis and his bloated salary would hit the sideline with acute Baron Davis-ness, and Bledsoe, drafted 10 slots after the Clippers selected Al-Farouq Aminu, took on a temporary starting role. The then-21-year-old showed flashes as a rookie, particularly on the defensive end, but his debut season mostly took a backseat to the one by Blake Griffin, the No. 1 overall pick from the previous season who quickly turned into a nightly must-watch.
Riding high for a change, the Clippers pushed in their chips that offseason, dealing for one of the league’s best players in Chris Paul. Bledsoe was frequently mentioned in reported talks leading up to the trade, but the Clippers would hang on to the burly mighty mite, setting up a backcourt dynamic with which he was all too familiar.
With Paul at the point, Bledsoe would see his playing time cut in half, to just 11 minutes a night. But his immense talent wouldn’t stay under wraps for too long. Underutilized in every sense of the word by coach Vinny Del Negro, Bledsoe made do with whatever scraps he was given in his third season, averaging 14.9 points, 5.2 rebounds, 5.4 assists and 2.5 steals per 36 minutes with the kind of on-ball defense the Clippers desperately needed.
But despite overwhelmingly positive numbers when the two guards shared the floor together in limited time, a Bledsoe-Paul backcourt was never really deployed. Interestingly enough, Paul made thinly veiled comments during the 2012-13 season about Bledsoe “deserving to run his own team." Sure, there was praise for a teammate, but it also was a tacit admission that it wouldn't be happening on the Clippers.
The result was a muted breakout for Bledsoe. After two seasons of testing his boundaries and turning over the ball a bunch in the process, Bledsoe reined himself in a bit and started to pick his spots more effectively. The chaos was more controlled offensively, but Bledsoe was still unleashed against opposing ball handlers, beating them to their spots with quick feet and not relenting position with his strength.
Still, while his ability to be a dominant two-way player was clear, the inability to neatly categorize a player like Bledsoe hurt the guard's stature. He was too short and his set shot was too odd-looking for comfort.
As per usual, Bledsoe both rewarded the team that sought him (Phoenix battled for a playoff spot when most had it pegged for a top-three pick) and managed to be overshadowed by the play of a teammate (Goran Dragic). He was “Mini-LeBron” and a “Slash Brother," and then he was a restricted free agent no team touched in the 2014 offseason.
The Suns would eventually re-sign Bledsoe to a five-year deal worth $70 million, but not before they would sign -- you guessed it -- another point guard in Isaiah Thomas.
Even though he’s come a long way from the rookie who would sling wild layups off the glass at impressive speeds, Bledsoe is still in need of further development.
His jumper is slow, erratic and utilizes minimal lift, which allows both wings and big men to sag off and protect the paint more than they would against most career 32 percent 3-point shooters. Bledsoe also has a nasty tendency of leaving his feet without a plan, and his aggressive nature on the drive invites a lot of contact and leads to a lot of turnovers.
That being said, to suggest that Bledsoe’s height is in any way a hindrance to his performance -- at either guard spot -- is nothing more than archaic thinking.
Bledsoe’s career total rebounding percentage (8.1) is right in line with Kobe Bryant’s (8.2) and vastly superior to wings with “prototypical size” such as Klay Thompson (5.4).
There’s more here than just rebounding, too. Dwyane Wade is considered maybe the best shot-blocking shooting guard of all time, but Bledsoe blocks a very similar percentage of shots (2.1 to 1.7) and could very well take the torch from Wade once the Heat guard calls it quits.
Length on the perimeter and in passing lanes is probably what matters the most here, but Bledsoe’s 6-foot-8 wingspan, rock-solid frame and explosiveness allow him to do everything on that end, aside from maybe contesting shots with the very top of his head.
Some teams are starting to come around on this and some aren’t. While it’s possible the Suns view Bledsoe as a shooting guard only in the short term with Goran Dragic an unrestricted free agent who should garner a big payday this upcoming offseason, the pairing has worked well for the time being.
Dragic has predictably come down to a earth a bit from his 2013-14 season, for which he won most improved player honors, but Bledsoe is thriving. He’s 30th among all players in real plus-minus (RPM) and 18th among all players in wins above replacement (WAR). He’s a one-man fast break adept at pinballing off smaller defenders or using reverses to stymie would-be shot-blockers. And Jeff Hornacek’s pace-and-space system, with its open driving lanes, is the perfect fit.
A future status as one of the best guards in the league isn’t guaranteed. Bledsoe has had multiple knee surgeries, and players who rely so heavily on their athleticism typically don’t tend to fare well down the road.
Still, there’s a tendency to take for granted the skill and nuance that some of the league’s more superior athletes employ on a nightly basis. Bledsoe’s time spent as a caddie to Paul clearly taught him a few things, and you’ll see flashes of that when he keeps his defender on his hip in the pick-and-roll or when he uses lateral movement with his dribble to better manipulate angles.
One would assume that Bledsoe can also become a better perimeter shooter with more repetition. Many guards have reinvented themselves later in their careers, but Bledsoe is still only 25, and he might not feel the need to downshift just yet when he’s getting to the rim without many problems.
But can he fulfill his potential as a legitimate franchise building block? The new contract would indicate that Phoenix believes he can, but the prospect of potentially losing him for nothing in free agency might have forced the Suns' hand.
Still, Bledsoe’s ability to mesh with other backcourt partners can’t be taken for granted when considering his overall value. The signing of Thomas could have thrown a real wrench into the Suns' backcourt rotation, but in the 299 minutes Thomas and Bledsoe have shared the floor together this season, the Suns have posted a blistering offensive rating of 115.1 and an overall net rating of plus-11.8 points per 100 possessions.
Whether or not the jumper comes along, it wouldn’t be a surprise if he continues to be left out of conversations surrounding the best players in the league. His game is loud -- the dunks, the defense, the drives -- but for some, it’s still in another language. There are plenty of other guards who more closely align with the over-idealized vision of a “true” point guard.
But even without a neatly defined label or a conventional set of skills, Bledsoe provides the one thing that actually matters: production.