PHOENIX — A compelling storyline the Suns and their fans will track as this season unfolds is the development of Eric Bledsoe.
The question of just how good he can become should help define the franchise’s roster reconstruction.
As the apprentice for Los Angeles Clippers superstar point guard Chris Paul, Bledsoe offered flashes of elite play during limited interludes in the spotlight.
With a flair for the spectacular established, Bledsoe — who has one year remaining on his initial NBA contract — became one of the league’s most coveted trade targets when his availability was set by Paul re-enlisting with the Clippers.
On Tuesday night at U.S. Airways Center, we were reminded that solemn predictions of Bledsoe stardom from respected peers should be measured. Well, unless the qualifications for stardom are less than we’re used to.
Anyway, in a practice game won by the Clippers, 102-96, CP3 demonstrated what superstar chops look like while Bledsoe continues to find his way as an NBA regular … with a new team.
Perhaps it’s a good thing Bledsoe’s first match against his old team and on-court mentor occurred in a game that doesn’t count.
Working a bit over 28 minutes — mostly against Paul — Bledsoe provided the Suns with eight points (making 3 of 6 from the field), seven assists and four steals.
Paul, who went to work early with 13 points in a 33-point opening quarter for the Clips, finished with 24, nine assists and five rebounds.
“It was a little bit of us going back and forth, Bledsoe said. “He had the upper hand. He was kind of going at me a little bit. I was making good defensive plays — he was making tough shots.”
Some were tough. Others were escorted to life when the Suns’ focus on team defense — dealing with a phalanx of ball screens — failed to prevent him from getting where he wanted to be.
On L.A.’s opening possession, a pick-and-roll co-starring Paul and DeAndre Jordan was switched by the Suns (Bledsoe was lost in the ensuing wash), who didn’t receive rotation help in time to prevent CP3 from finding his big center rolling for a return pass and dunk.
Bledsoe countered with two free throws after getting into the lane via a pick from Miles Plumlee.
Two possessions later, Paul was fouled by Bledsoe on a pull-up jumper that dropped, converted the free throw and — on the following trip downcourt — beat Bledsoe for a layup after giving the ball up and making a basket cut.
Three possessions after that, Bledsoe abandoned Paul in an attempt to strip Jordan at the elbow and — after a skip pass and no rotation help — was burned when CP3 turned that situation into a 3-point jumper.
When asked if Bledsoe was attempting to do too much in a first date with his old team, Suns coach Jeff Hornacek said no.
“I don’t think he tried to do too much at all,” Hornacek said. “He only took six shots. He probably could have been more aggressive.
“There were times he drove it down, he was looking to set something up when he should have just shot the ball.”
Much like reports of their practice showdowns in L.A., Bledsoe certainly didn’t back down. With just under 5 minutes remaining in Paul’s command first-quarter run, Bledsoe ripped CP3 in the open court and converted at the other end.
It’s that caliber of point-of-attack defense the Suns need to build around.
“He really sets the tone for us defensively in terms of getting after guys,” Hornacek said. “When he does it, other guys do it.”
And not being the equal of Chris Paul is something you attach to almost (if not every) every point guard in the league. How closely Bledsoe approaches an elite level could determine how quickly Phoenix reaches, then turns, the corner.
For perspective, let’s go with CP3:
“Bled is his own man,” Paul said of his former understudy. “He knows how to play the game, and he’s like a little brother to me … a big little brother, actually.
“To see how he’s developed over the past couple of years, I don’t have to tell him anything. It’s kind of hard playing against him.”