ClipperBlog is running a series called “Summer Reading” – tidbits, advice and (ideally) reading material for each member of the Los Angeles Clippers. The hope being that players return next season armed with newfound knowledge, improvements to their skills and emboldened by their summer studies. Because knowing is half the battle.
Reading Material: Sacred Hoops: Spiritual Lessons of a Hardwood Warrior, by Phil Jackson
By now, we’ve established that Bledsoe has what it takes physically to be a very good NBA player. A scout could comfortably report that, “he can score, he can pass, he can run, he can jump and he can really, really, defend.” He has the “tools.”
But what separates many talented individuals from becoming stars is the loosely defined gray area we call “the mental side.” Not in a Wonderlic test or Clutch kind of way, but a general approach to the game that determines how a player matures, evolves, and deals with adversity. It’s why Kevin Love can go from land-bound rebounder to bona fide superstar, and why Michael Beasley can put up 26 and 12 in college, but only 15 and 5 in the pros, with the efficiency of my friend Scott, who believes “I was feelin’ it” suffices as a reason to shoot.
As Phil Jackson wrote in Sacred Hoops, “Not only is there more to life than basketball, there’s a lot more to basketball than basketball.”
Bledsoe does not have the demeanor of Beasley. He is a hard worker, is extremely committed to defense, and has shown the ability to adapt his game over parts of two years in the league. But his physical gifts also far exceed Love’s, so we are right to wonder how he can improve, and by how much.
Taking much from his numbers this season proves very difficult — the man played in only 40 games, averaging 3.3 points in just over 11 minutes per. Even his rookie season, in which he was thrust into the starting lineup on opening night as a 20-year old and asked to run the show for a team in transition, gave us more data than this one. Between the knee injury that kept him out for 26 games, the backcourt logjam that made minutes hard to come by, and a coach that didn’t trust him anyway, a weird 2012 was especially so for young Bledsoe. But it all helps, and thanks to an 11-game playoff run, we saw a trajectory that looks decidedly upward.
For many players, the games moves too fast, but that really doesn’t seem to be the problem with him. No matter how big the moment, his demeanor conveys nothing but cool. Instead, he tends to move too fast for the game.
As a rookie, he was a turnover waiting to happen, that most often did happen. But as I argued after his 17-point, 10-turnover performance in his first summer league game, many were “good turnovers.” They were the type you want your young point guard to make — pushing the limits of his own control, looking to create for himself and others. During the regular season, he posted a 26.3 turnover rate, a predictable result for a player his age with one year in college, playing off the ball, with little experience, coaching or support to speak of.
That began to change this year. In very limited minutes, he still struggled with his command of both the ball and the offense (but then again, don’t we all? When Chris Paul wasn’t in there, what was the offense?), but he showed improvement. He ranked 8th among guards with over 20 games played in turnover rate (percentage of possessions ending in turnover — not good), but he was down to 24.4. Improvement, and improvement in a shortened season, coming off of injury, with scattered minutes and a roster that didn’t really “fit.”
Then, in the playoffs, against two fantastic defensive teams, he lowered that number to 17.6. He was making plays (big time plays), while taking better control of the ball. It would’ve been blasphemous to say so before the playoffs, but at times he looked like a healthy Chris Paul out there — shifting gears, dictating pace and keeping defenders off balance with supreme court vision.
His dominance covered both ends, and where he really emerged was around the edges. We tend to look at scoring first, so it’s really something when you notice a player for doing other things. There are a special few who jump out at you with their defensive pressure, and he became one of them on a consistent basis. Despite being listed at 6 foot 1, he ranked 11th among qualified guards in total rebound rate and continued to terrorize unsuspecting opponents with his ability to elevate and contest shots.
So where does he get better?
In the book, “the Zen Master” Jackson writes about “living in the moment, being calm and focused in the midst of chaos.” For Bledsoe, much of the chaos on a court is of his own creation, but going forward he can only benefit from harnessing it. Unlike most NBA players, he can get to any point on the floor, essentially whenever he wants. The next step for him is to take ownership of this power — to have a plan and execute it — with the knowledge that his opponent is mostly powerless to stop him.
His shooting form looks fine, but to this point he has not shot well consistently. The stroke from 10-15 feet works (about 40% for his career), but with the space his opponent has to give him, you’d like to see him develop a runner (18% from 3-9 feet last year) and develop range out to the three-point line, where he’s shot only 26 percent for his career.
It’s all about him. By mastering the mental — dare I say “spiritual” — side of the game, the sky is the limit. With a clear idea about what he’s trying to accomplish on the floor, no “roll the ball out and let ’em play” coaching or “make him a jump shooter” defense can stop him from reaching his potential. And with his physical gifts, that potential, as I’m sure you’ve heard, could be something special.