Headed into his fourth year in the NBA, there's still a lot we don't know about Eric Bledsoe.
In three seasons with the Los Angeles Clippers, Bledsoe started 38 games and played 3,858 total minutes. By contrast, Damian Lillard started all 82 games and played 3,167 minutes in his rookie season with the Portland Trail Blazers. Bledsoe, who came into the league after one season at Kentucky, is only six months older than Lillard, the 2013 Rookie of the Year.
In that respect, the Phoenix Suns are the perfect situation for him. Bledsoe is a player who needs an opportunity, and the Suns are a team with nothing but time to develop him. New GM Ryan McDonough is turning over the roster, with three of the top four scorers from last year's team gone. In the extremely competitive Western Conference, the Suns have little chance of contending for a playoff spot. If Bledsoe proves himself worthy of a starting spot, the season will have been at least a partial success.
Bledsoe's limited minutes in Los Angeles were mainly the result of Vinny Del Negro's impressively uncreative rotation patterns. There wasn't much more the young player could do to earn playing time; last season, he had per-36 minute averages of 14 points, five rebounds, five assists, 2.5 steals and 1.5 blocks. Say what you will about Don Nelson, but he would at least have tried a backcourt of Chris Paul and Bledsoe instead of running out Willie Green and Chauncey Billups for 82 games.
At 6'1 and 195 pounds with a 6'7 wingspan, Bledsoe is the rare small guard who can impact every phase of the game. His length and foot speed make him a defensive nightmare; he can legitimately ball-hawk NBA guards for 94 feet. He crashes the glass, blocks shots and scores at the rim like a much bigger player, which is how he got the "Mini-LeBron" nickname. While some shooting guards would have a size advantage on him, his explosive athleticism would give them just as much trouble.
At Kentucky, Bledsoe primarily played off the ball, with John Wall running point. The two were like a pair of press cornerbacks unleashed on a basketball court, averaging more than three steals a game and living in transition. They just overwhelmed teams at the point of attack, disrupting their half-court offense and controlling the tempo. They were the Miami Heat of college basketball, finishing the season with a 35-3 record and +14.4 point differential.
Wall went No. 1 overall, but Bledsoe slipped to No. 18, the fourth Wildcat to come off the board. At 6'4 and 195 pounds, Wall was bigger and a more natural point guard. Bledsoe averaged only 2.9 assists on 3.0 turnovers as a freshman; he wasn't asked to run the offense or be a playmaker. They were both five-star point guards coming out of high school, but Wall's presence allowed John Calipari to unleash Bledsoe on the opposition, freeing him up to wreak havoc on both ends of the floor.
A similar dynamic could occur in Phoenix. Goran Dragic, at 6'3 and 190 pounds, has the size to cross-match defensive assignments. As a result, Bledsoe could have a role similar to Avery Bradley in Boston, except with much, much more offense. He can take the tougher defensive assignment in the backcourt on most nights, pressing and ball-hawking up the floor. If Jeff Hornacek wants to run a more up-tempo system, Bledsoe is the perfect catalyst for a Nuggets South.
Bledsoe's ceiling will depend on how much he's improved as a decision-maker and a shooter. Those were the two big differences for Bledsoe last season, when he jumped his PER from 11.2 to 17.5. He had the best shooting percentages (44 percent from the floor, 40 percent from three-point range and 79 percent from the free-throw line) and assist-to-turnover ratio (3.1 to 1.8) of his career. For a young player with his athleticism, taking what the defense gives you can sometimes be the toughest thing to learn.
Bledsoe's life is only as difficult as he makes it. He doesn't need to rush jumpers or take shots with a hand in his face. He's too fast for defenders to respect his shot and stay in front of him. In a 1-on-1 situation, either he has the space to set his feet and shoot or he has a lane to the basket. If he gets into the paint and draws the second defender, he doesn't need to force the action. As long as the Suns space the floor, he can just hit the open man.
If that sounds simple, it's because it is. There aren't many players in the NBA with more athleticism than Bledsoe. If he plays a fundamentally sound game, there isn't much guys can do to stop him. Lillard, who plays with a ton of poise for such a young player, learned this in four years at Weber State. Bledsoe, who came into the league at a much younger age, needed some veterans to show him the ropes.
After two years watching Paul, it's time to see what he has learned.