Bledsoe finds rhythm, consistency in 2nd season with Suns
PHOENIX — From a meticulously self-crafted "man of few words," anything within the neighborhood of declaration is welcome.
"I’m going to go home," Suns point guard Eric Bledsoe announced Wednesday night, "and sleep like a baby . . . I’ll tell you that much."
This relative verbal salvo occurred shortly after a statement game during which he slapped 10 rebounds, six assists and three steals together with a career-high 33 points in a 118-113 victory over the Portland Trail Blazers. It came against the second-best team in the NBA’s mighty Western Conference while matched up for much of the night with Portland all-star Damian Lillard and helped the Suns win for the 14th time in their last 18 games.
But there have been other feats of expertly timed acrobatics and demonstrations of position-defying strength.
There has been more evidence of effort-accrued skill, carefully articulated leadership, wall-to-wall energy and increased commitment to defensive detail.
Consistently applying these attributes has transformed Bledsoe into the team leader across several categories of statistics. He is, for example, at the top of the Suns’ list in something known as Value Over Replacement Player.
But the number that may best define Bledsoe’s second season as a Suns’ employee is zero.
Zero represents the number of games Bledsoe has missed.
Measured against last season (when the Phoenix point guard was a goner for 20 of the first 44 games and 39 games overall), the value of that number seems to justify all of those previously controversial zeroes applied to the end of his new, five-year, $70 million contract.
And what will this investment provide?
Well, including last season, Bledsoe has now competed in 87 games for the Suns. With the one-and-done former Kentucky Wildcat in uniform, Phoenix has won 54 times. (Without him, the Suns are 20-19 over the same period.)
It also should be noted that the overall health of his game has remained in lock step with that of his contract-risky knees.
Although his offensive efficiency has dipped slightly from last season, improvement isn’t always bracketed by analytics.
So how should we define the perceived increase in his value?
"Pretty much . . . my decision making," Bledsoe said when asked to pinpoint this season’s improvement. "I’ve done a great job of passing the ball without turning it over so much.
"Taking less shots, getting everybody else involved where, down the stretch, I can make plays for myself."
A review of statistical splits indicates Bledsoe, indeed, has started a climb in assists and a reduction in turnovers since those early season, rhythm-seeking struggles. But checking the aggregate numbers isn’t what inspires Jeff Hornacek to endorse this improvement.
"I think Eric last year . . . I would say the biggest thing was consistency," the second-year Suns coach said. "You know, some games were great, some games were horrible, there was kind of no middle ground.
"I think this year he’s leveled that out where we don’t have some of the games where he just has a tough night. Even his bad nights are still half-way decent nowadays, so that’s a good step. The next step is going to be whenever we play, no matter who we’re playing, that he comes out and plays like it’s an NBA Finals game. He’s done better at that, but I think he can still do a little bit better."
Well, the numbers indicate Bledsoe actually has had more stinkers (our qualifying standards are games shooting less than 40 percent from the field and/or committing at least 5 turnovers) this season than last in a similar numbers of games.
But he’s provided greater comfort for his coach by embracing Hornacek’s desire to accelerate the game’s tempo. After a season of cruising into most half-court possessions, Bledsoe — using his capacity to hurry through traffic with a style that conjures images of a turbo-charged delivery truck — now can be seen gunning it down the floor at every opportunity.
He also has heeded Hornacek’s recommendation to avoid assuming that being able to reach the paint requires leaping into the air, hoping to execute the best play that becomes available. Too often, Bledsoe and his Suns playmaking buddies would miss a contested shot at the rim or become trapped while elevated, looking for a bail-out pass.
The refined Bledsoe now picks his spots to finish, and often chooses to keep his dribble alive (and feet on the floor) while searching for an open, shot-ready teammate.
"I don’t mind jumping up in the air if you already have a plan," Hornacek said. "But if you just jump in there and then you want to look for something, sometimes you find a guy, other times they rotate and now you’re stuck. So he’s done a better job of that."
In general, since that first-month attempt to blend with two other dominant point guards (Goran Dragic and Isaiah Thomas), Bledsoe has become a lot more consistent.
Another up-close eyewitness is Dragic, who — after spending last season learning to play with and without Bledsoe.
Now that he’s at peace with his place in the Suns’ offensive hierarchy, Dragic seems to have an increased appreciation of his co-star’s contributions.
"He’s more comfortable," Dragic said. "I mean, last year was his first year with us. Now he knows what to expect, how we want to play. He’s so dominating at driving that no one can stay in front of him.
"I think his mid-range shot is better. Overall, he’s more calm, because last year was his last year of the deal and every player’s kind of nervous about what can happen in the future. So he’s found a home, we love him here. He’s our guy that he can rebound, he can get assists, he can stop the guy. He does a lot for the team."
Ticking off stat-sheet boxes at a rapid, nightly tempo, Bledsoe is second on the team in points per game (16.8), first in assists (5.9), first in steals (1.6) and third in rebounds (5.3).
With the Western Conference offering an abundance of elite point guards, Bledsoe also is required to put in considerable work as a go-to defender.
"That’s a key," Hornacek, referencing Bledsoe’s versatility said. "A lot of guys when they don’t score, it affects the rest of their game. Great players, when they don’t score, then they’re doing other things.
"They say, ‘OK, it may not be my night . . . I may not be scoring, but I can get rebounds, I can play defense, I can get some steals . . . I can make good passes and be a leader,’ and so on. I think Eric does that, probably the biggest thing is rebounding . . . he’s taken some pride in being one of the best rebounding point guards in the league."
This ability to impact the game in various ways is especially crucial on a team that frequently searches out small-ball mismatches to exploit. With the 5-foot-9 Thomas joining the point-guard party, Bledsoe’s value escalates commensurate with his work against disparate opponents.
As Hornacek often reminds us, sacrifices are required from all three of his high-level playmakers. With the Suns rolling through the first three weeks of January, the comfort level continues to rise.
For Dragic, this familiarity is hard to ignore.
"Really comfortable," The Dragon said when asked about playing alongside another dominant ballhandler like Bledsoe. "Even last year, I was doubting a little bit how we’re going play together. But after training camp, we really jelled together. Our chemistry, it was great. Unfortunately, he got hurt.
"Now I know what he’s going to do. If we play like this, it’s so much easier. I know where I need to stand, and need to be. I hope he feels the same about me."
The admiration and level of comfort certainly seem reciprocal.
"No question," Bledsoe said. "We’ve got two great point guards besides myself coming into the game. They do a great job of always staying in attack mode, getting to the rim, drawing people and kicking it to other people.
"It makes it easy on my part."
A year ago, this growing point-guard accord led the Suns to within a whisker of the eighth seed in the Western Conference. During his getaway interview with several reporters, Dragic said he was committed to staying in contact with Bledsoe, who was wading into what would become a hazy, crazy, rumor-rocked summer of restricted free agency.
Now it’s Dragic who is expected to opt out of the final year of his current contract and see how much more than the scheduled $7.5 million he can fetch on the free-agent market.
With his running buddy eligible to work elsewhere, the Suns’ man of few words promises he won’t sit quietly by while The Dragon considers those options.
"I’m definitely going to do the same thing," Bledsoe said of reminding Dragic of how important he is to the team and fans in Phoenix. "Definitely going to do the same thing."
For the team’s premier stat-sheet stuffer, that might qualify as his biggest assist of the year.