In the book that is this Clippers season, you’d have to get a few chapters in before reading about the debut of Eric Bledsoe. You might have caught a brief mention early on — perhaps even a footnote — during the part about the Chris Paul trade, but even that was only because he wasn’t involved in it.
With so much going on in Clipperland, you can’t blame the author for brushing aside the narrative of the second-year point guard who spent the season’s first 16 games sitting behind the bench in street clothes as he recovered from knee surgery. In another season, it might have been news that such a promising young player suffered a non-minor injury, but not for this team, this year.
Not until now, at least.
After two rehab games in the D-League, Bledsoe is expected to make his return on Sunday against the Nuggets, the team he torched for 20 points and seven steals (!) last season in perhaps his best game as a pro. And while the timing isn’t perfect — the team could’ve used him when Paul missed five games with his own injury — this is absolutely an opportunity for both Bledsoe and the Clippers.
Let’s not forget who he is and what he represents. This is a 22-year old point guard with athleticism for his position that rivals both Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan. Even in an up-and-down rookie year, his highlight reel was right up there with those of his high-flying teammates.
Despite wildly inconsistent playing time (seriously, take a look at the breakdown — he played 0-9 minutes almost as often as he played 40-plus) and adjusting to the position after playing off the ball in his one year at Kentucky, he exhibited the defensive chops to be an NBA point guard right off the bat. Essentially relying on natural ability, he was fifth among qualified point guards in both blocks and steals per 40 minutes.
In light of what they gave up to get Paul, it’s also important to remember that Bledsoe remains as the sole premium “prospect” on the roster. Without Minnesota’s pick, opportunities to add such high-upside talent will be limited for the foreseeable future.
With a roster presently at full strength and overflowing with guards, he may find the answer to be, “one row in front of his usual seat, but still on the bench, unless someone gets hurt or into foul trouble.” This is certainly a possibility, for a couple reasons:
- The aforementioned depth in the backcourt would mean that Vinny Del Negro would have to take minutes from at least two, maybe three veterans ahead of him on the depth chart. This has already become an issue with Chauncey Billups, although that really only entails a shift of minutes from one veteran to another.
- Let’s not forget that Bledsoe ended last season on somewhat of a down note. His production tailed off over the last month and a half, but that could be excused for a rookie who had far exceeded his expected workload. What’s less clear is his relationship with his coach, which came into question when he got suspended for the team’s second-to-last game, in which they got blown out and caused Breene Murphy to suggest a protest loss. Plenty of time has since passed, and Bledsoe did respond with 13 points, 6 assists, 3 steals and 2 blocks in an inspired season finale, but could there be any lingering effects?
- And, finally, how much rope will Bledsoe get? He has the potential to contribute, but the weaknesses he did show as a rookie, should they reappear, aren’t likely to sit well with a coach under tremendous pressure to win. He was a turnover machine and committed more than his share of blunders. It’ll be interesting to see how patient Del Negro is when Bledsoe fouls a jumpshooter at the end of the shot clock or dribbles the ball out of bounds, knowing there are former All-Stars hungry for minutes.
He returns to the team at an interesting part in its development. Billups’ role is in flux, but even while everyone is healthy, there is a place for Bledsoe if he can seize it. In this condensed season, he will get an opportunity to make a difference with the second unit, and his skillset would seem a perfect fit.
He’s the only true point guard on the roster behind Paul, and at this point in their careers, he’s the anti-Chauncey Billups. Already capable of making a living as a defender, he has the natural inclination to break down the defense and create for others. Playing with the offensively-challenged second unit, this gift cannot be overlooked.
There is a sentiment that a logjam in the backcourt exists, and therefore one of the guards must go, but none of Billups, Williams or Foye brings to the table what Bledsoe does. All three can, at times, get hot and carry stretches with their shooting, but we’ve seen the offense get bogged down when Del Negro goes with three guards who all prefer to float around the perimeter. If there is anyone that can take advantage of Reggie Evans screens and make defenses pay by getting to the rim or making life easier for spot-up shooters, it’s Bledsoe.
Judging from his two games with the bakersfield Jam, he’s ready to jump right in. In his first game back, he went for 15 points and seven assists on 6-11 shooting. Playing 24 minutes the next night, he seemed to embrace the role of facilitator even more, scoring 10 points on only seven shots, while dishing out 10 assists. In a game where his team lost by 16 points, he was the only player with a positive plus/minus, at +8.
After a year of learning on the job how to take his foot off the brakes from time to time, one can only hope that practicing alongside Paul can only help further his development. We already know that the two have some level of comfort from their time playing together this summer.
The trade deadline is almost a month away, but Neil Olshey knows what he has in Bledsoe. He traded a future first round pick to get him, and he made a point to hang onto him in the face of pressure to make the Paul deal at any cost.
But even in the unlikely event that an opportunity presents itself to upgrade the frontcourt or add depth on the wings and Olshey deems Bledsoe an appropriate price to pay, his return makes him an integral part of the story.