This will be a season of dramatic change for Eric Bledsoe, who for the first time in his NBA career will be looked upon as a crucial component of his team's construction. Such is inevitable after Bledsoe (along with Caron Butler, who has since been traded to Milwaukee) was sent from Los Angeles to Phoenix -- from a loaded contender to a roster in its formative stages. Much will be asked of him over the next few years, but Bledsoe is primed for evolution after so often swelling past the limits of a slighter assigned role with the Clippers.
There are flashes of stardom in Bledsoe's play, to be sure, and one of his former teammates has gone on the record with a ringing endorsement for the 23-year-old guard's future. Jamal Crawford, who often shared the court with Bledsoe last season, expressed unfettered optimism in regard to Bledsoe's potential in an interview with Alex Kennedy of HOOPSWORLD:
“He’ll be a star, no question,” Crawford said of Bledsoe. “The guidance and tutelage from Chris and Chauncey and Mo Williams, who was here before, only made him better as a point guard. He’ll definitely be a star. I don’t know when because everybody’s [learning] curve is a little bit different, but there’s no question he’ll be a star. He has the athletic ability and he wants to get better. He has gotten better. A team like that in Phoenix, they’re going to see great results. I think he’ll be exciting to watch too. He was a joy to play with and his growth last year was tremendous. You never want somebody to get hurt, but when Chris went down, Bledsoe stepped in and he did a heck of a job.”
Crawford isn't giving token credit to Bledsoe's mentors; the influence of Chris Paul, in particular, could be easily traced in the young guard's pick-and-roll operations last season. The way that Bledsoe now drifts laterally for a few steps after clearing a screen, only to then explode toward the lane? That might as well be a telltale mark of Paul's instruction. Bledsoe is a noticeably more patient and intelligent ball handler for having played as Paul's understudy, though there are caveats to consider before jumping to Crawford's ultimate conclusion.
GOLLIVER: Offseason grades for Phoenix Suns
Bledsoe is a fantastic defender, a dynamic off-ball threat, and an athletic marvel. But part of the problem in his modeling his game after Paul's is that he doesn't yet have the same command over the ball, his shot, or the field of play. It's still instructive for him to mimic the prototype point guard's basic actions, but for the moment the results are far more uneven. It should go without saying that Bledsoe doesn't see the court like Paul; no one would expect that much of an up-and-comer, and for the moment Bledsoe is able to make functional passes to find the roll man or spot an open shooter. Yet with a narrower field of vision comes fewer outs when things go awry, resulting in a process that's more limited even when charting an identical course to his superior.
Things will still go incredibly well for Bledsoe if he can ever use a screen, tuck into a pocket in the defense, and hit those mid-range jumpers with consistency a la Paul. But until the time comes when he can pose a threat from the court's intermediate zones, opposing defenses can and will continue to lay back until he makes his way closer to the basket. One can see relatively steady improvement in Bledsoe's shooting in spot-up situations as it is, but he has trouble finding his balance when shooting on the move, to say nothing of his tendency to pick up his dribble prematurely and force difficult looks.
In conjunction, those factors contributed to Bledsoe shooting just 29.5 percent from mid-range last season and a mere 39.2 percent on runners, floaters, and short jumpers in the paint. Paul completed 49.2 percent and 52.2 percent of those looks, respectively, by comparison, and while that standard is a bit unfair to Bledsoe, it aptly demonstrates the world of difference in result for two guards looking to make the same kinds of scoring plays. Bledsoe has access to the kind of speed and leaping ability that eludes even Paul, but for the moment he lacks the framing skills -- the feel for playmaking, the scoring touch off the dribble -- to capitalize on those gifts on a more consistent basis.
That won't stop Bledsoe from being a hurtling ball of athletic intrigue in Phoenix, well worthy of both the Suns' investment and of so much confidence. He simply has some kinks in his game that need to be worked out before he threatens to attain conventional levels of basketball stardom. Statistical support for this post provided by NBA.com.