It is often best to show restraint when it comes to young players. Expectations have a way of getting out of hand when you see eye-popping physical gifts and allow yourself to dream.
You see what they can do, and all of a sudden you find yourself just assuming that a turnover problem or iffy shooting stroke will correct itself with time, because that’s what can happen and that’s what we want to happen. But it doesn’t always go that way, as we know, and so patience is the play before declaring every player with potential the next Dwyane Wade.
The problem with that, of course, is that we risk missing out on the greatest thing in all of sports: being prepared for the arrival of the next Dwyane Wade.
And last night, for those of us who allowed ourselves to dream, the legend of Eric Bledsoe took another giant leap towards reality. His career may not approach the greatness of Wade’s — and the odds say it won’t — but for special players like him, odds only serve to isolate the believers from those who prefer to play it cool.
On a court that featured a minimum of two and up to five future Hall of Famers, only the great Tim Duncan impacted the game like the 22-year old Bledsoe. Which is fitting, because with every breathtaking defensive possession or composed foray into the lane, his facial expression grew more Duncan-like, completely unfazed by the magnitude of the moment.
It was like for 26 and a half minutes, he was playing a game of one-on-one, make it take it, and his opponent was barely touching the ball. Every check ball at the top of the key belonged to Bledsoe — a chain of buckets, boards, dimes and game-changing stops that just wouldn’t end.
The Spurs are a better team than the Clippers, so Bledsoe could only do so much. But so much, he did. Paired next to Chris Paul, the difference in explosiveness was just as striking as the similarities in composure and control of the ball. When he finally got to share the backcourt with Paul, part of you kept waiting for him to defer or something to go wrong, but it never happened.
His performance against Memphis was special to those of us who care, and noteworthy to the masses that hadn’t yet taken an interest. But even his staunchest supporters had reason to wonder if his skill set was just well-suited for that style of play. After all, even his own coach apparently still considers him more of a change-of-pace novelty than a starting-caliber difference-maker. No one could confidently say he had reached a level he could sustain against more complete opposition.
But what we saw last night changed everything. We rightly resist hyperbole, but we’d be doing a disservice to our most primal NBA passions to deny what we are seeing develop in front of our eyes.
Last night, Eric Bledsoe looked like Dwyane Wade. He put up 23 points on 10-16 shooting, five rebounds and four assists against arguably the best team in the league — certainly the best coached — the one that held Chris Paul to 3-13 from the floor. Without so much as a system to fall back on if things weren’t working, he attacked confidently but with unprecedented control, and scored from any spot on the floor.
He took the ball, quite literally, and a team that has made it this far on the shoulders of one player, Chris Paul, lost nothing in the process. The story of this series is yet to be completed, but it’s looking more and more like the the only things that can keep him off the floor are his coach and his gas tank — which itself is a function of the lack of playing time he received throughout the year.
Because the Grizzlies couldn’t stop him, and I’m not sure how the Spurs plan to, either. That’s because he has what it takes to be great: you can bet that he’ll put his stamp on the game, even if his shot isn’t falling like it was last night. That’s special.