What started as a modest, well-appointed bandwagon now seems like a fully tricked-out limo that spans the length of an NBA 3-pointer and has a seat reserved for LeBron James.
Thanks, Eric Bledsoe, for bringing expectation back to the Phoenix Suns.
Please understand that we’re linking Bledsoe to positive expectation even though, based on win-loss projection for the coming season, the Suns — despite a make-the-town-giddy infusion of young talent — have inspired one major sports-media outlet to already predict another last-place finish in the Western Conference.
“I just use that as motivation,” said Bledsoe, answering questions while quadruple-teamed behind a stage at Scottsdale Fashion Plaza as the Suns unveiled their new uniforms last week.
OK, so Bledsoe — acquired from the Los Angeles Clippers in a deal that demonstrated how committed Suns general manager Ryan McDonough is to roster renovation — has some media-generated provocation to fuel his workouts.
“I’m just trying to get better than I did last year,” he said. “Increase that by 10 times more and just have a big impact on the game.”
But what about the post-trade testimonials that suggest he may be even better than we’re expecting? That bandwagon is rollin’ through all the stop lights. The latest passenger was none other than LeBron; more on him in a bit.
Anyway, it began during the welcome-to-town press conference when Caron Butler — also acquired from the Clippers in a three-team trade that delivered Bledsoe and sent Jared Dudley to Tinseltown — said the 23-year-old guard had “superstar written all over him.” Butler is a veteran who’s played at a pretty high level for a while, has earned an impressive level of respect and is not prone to fits of hyperbole.
Sure, the 6-foot-1 Bledsoe is a combustible athlete who demonstrated the ability to make sensational plays while working in the shadow of the great Chris Paul. Long before the trade, his modest numbers — his workday compressed to an average of 20 minutes per game behind CP3 — had been extrapolated toward a statistical resolution of his long-range potential by number-juggling types looking at what might occur should he receive close to starting-caliber burn.
He’s great at stealing the ball, pretty effective at guarding the ball (depending on which analytics base you follow), improving at shooting the ball (although his 3-point sample size isn’t exactly vast) and really good at accomplishing things usually reserved for taller players.
When Butler went to “superstar” in his assessment of Bledsoe’s future, most listeners chalked it up to press-conference excess.
A recent Bledsoe trip to Cleveland, however, included working out with James, who just happens to be the sport’s greatest player right now. And LeBron, still in offseason social-media form, tweeted this:
OK, so the review was a bit sideways of eloquent, even for Twitter, but it still qualifies as a kaboom moment for hopeful Suns fans. Although the talent-evaluation history of Michael Jordan renders judgments from superstars at far less than greatness guarantees, this one doesn’t hurt.
“It’s an honor for me,” Bledsoe said of the kind words from James. “It makes me want to work even harder.”
Ah, yes. The work. According to Butler, Bledsoe will put in the time required to go from a power-packed bundle of potential to a full-fledged star. But NBA greatness usually requires more than effort.
Just how good is Bledsoe? And, perhaps more importantly, how good can he become? For context, we checked with Clippers general manager Gary Sacks.
“We think the world of him as a player and as a person,” Sacks said of Bledsoe. “It was very, very, very hard to trade him considering the player he is and how good he’s going to be.”
Going with “very” three times reminds us that the Clippers had just re-enlisted Paul for several buckets of loot, and CP3 is arguably the best PG in basketball.
According to league insiders, the team had considered keeping Bledsoe to work with Paul and Jamal Crawford in a three-guard rotation. And this internal mulling continued after Doc Rivers arrived as head coach and psychological touchstone. But the Clippers were really in need of floor spacers, especially with little or no shooting range at the starting four and five spots.
So Bledsoe — with much reluctance — became expendable. The return was Dudley and hotshot J.J. Redick, who was the Milwaukee Bucks’ contribution to the deal.
In Bledsoe, the Suns now have an electrifying athlete at point guard who is, as mentioned previously, really good at stealing the ball but pretty prolific at giving it away. Their best returning player, Goran Dragic, plays the same position. The Suns say they will play the two together for extended interludes, providing playmaking potential on both sides of the floor.
“I’m very excited,” Bledsoe said of this opportunity. “Coming in to play more … don’t have to worry about coming in and playing spot minutes.”
Will Bledsoe use his speed, quickness, strength and bounce to thrive in coach Jeff Hornacek’s attempt at a scorched-earth offense? We’ll have to wait and see. But at least one observer, some guy named Tim Grimes who writes for a site called NBA Focus: Risk Analysis and Player Management, thinks this kid may become a draft class of 2010 alum who makes good. Here’s some pro-Bledsoe input from last December.
Massaging the message in Bledsoe’s per-minute stats has kept a lot of Suns followers occupied since the trade. But more evidence comes in the form of specific salvos from last season.
On April 20, he played 19 minutes, scored 15 points (making all seven shots from the field), grabbed six rebounds and handed out four assists in a playoff game with the Memphis Grizzlies.
Earlier that month, he went 8 of 14 from the field, scored 17 points and handed out seven dimes in 22 minutes.
With Paul out, he scored 27 points in 41 minutes of one game, 17 in 36 minutes of other and 23 (while going 9 for 15) to go with seven rebounds and 10 assists in a 38-minute stretch.
But it’s the everyday improvement that impressed his Clippers family.
“I saw so much promise out of him, just in practice,” Butler said after last week’s uniform-modeling session. “It says a lot to have a guy like Chris Paul there and see how they competed night in, night out in practice. (Bledsoe) held his own.
“I’m excited for him to get on this platform and be able to show the world what he’s capable of doing. It’s not going to be overnight … but maybe it will. Who knows?”