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Phoenix Suns Player Preview 2016-17: Eric Bledsoe must be leader for young team

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After health, Bledsoe’s consistency and growth will be key

NBA: Phoenix Suns-Media Day Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Fans, pundits, oddsmakers, and even some around the team itself have diminished expectations for how the Phoenix Suns will fare this season after a miserable 23-59 campaign in 2015-16. If you, dear reader, are one of the many who have accepted this conventional wisdom and are now hoarding canned goods and toilet paper in your basketball storm shelter as you prepare to wait out another trying season, know this: Eric Bledsoe has rejected your reality and substituted his own.

“I have high expectations every year. Every year I step on the court I have high expectations for the team,” Bledsoe said during Media Day. “For myself, I’ve got us being top five or even higher in the Western Conference, and I believe in that. All I got to do is get the team on the same page as me and make them believe, and we’ll be fine.”

Bledsoe paints a rosy picture, but the situation he steps into comes with its share of conveniently overlooked thorns. Still, Bledsoe is not completely off base in expressing such confidence, and it boils down to one important fact — the team will go as far as Bledsoe can take it.

Despite enduring the third meniscus surgery of his career and being challenged by the ascendancy of Devin Booker, Bledsoe has yet to be deposed as the team’s best player. Entering into his prime years and looking fully recovered after losing 51 games last season to injury, Bledsoe enters the 2016-17 season expected to lead the team both on and off the court.

Now he must prove equal to the task.

Bledsoe is coming off a season where he averaged career highs for points (20.4), assists (6.1), and steals (2.0). In the last 10 seasons, only Russell Westbrook (twice), Stephen Curry (twice), Dwyane Wade (twice), Chris Paul (twice), Baron Davis (twice), and Kyle Lowry have had 20-6-2 seasons. The ability is undeniably there, but in order for Bledsoe to make good on his preseason predictions for his team, he needs to bring that level of play every night and avoid stretches like he had immediately preceding his knee injury in December.

In the five games before injuring himself Dec. 26, Bledsoe scored six, 29, 18, eight, and nine points with assist totals of eight, nine, one, three, and seven. That stretch came amid worsening turmoil surrounding the team, but he set a poor example on the court for his teammates to follow. The Suns will undoubtedly suffer through hard times again this season, but as the leader, Bledsoe must remain unbowed.

Furthermore, he can no longer go full tilt one night and then settle for 60-percent effort the next. That is called consistent inconsistency, and it is the hallmark of a wannabe leader.

Bledsoe did not start the preseason on an encouraging trend in that regard, but he has picked up the intensity in each of the last two games — as most veterans do when preseason winds down. He tallied 16 points, seven rebounds, and three assists against Utah and followed that effort with 17 points, seven assists, and three steals against Dallas. Judging a player’s effort or output in preseason games isn’t exactly a fair metric, but it does provide a trend line to examine, with Bledsoe’s headed in the right direction as Oct. 26 approaches.

One stat that is worth watching both in the final preseason game and into the regular season is his free throw numbers. Free throw attempts is a telling stat for Bledsoe considering his crash-the-paint style of play, and he should be averaging six to eight per game at max aggressiveness. His preseason performances bear this out, as Bledsoe attempted four free throws over the first three preseason games combined but 15 over the last two, when his aggressiveness picked up. Maintaining the latter output from the charity stripe would not only be beneficial to the team but could also elevate Bledsoe into All-Star consideration.

But no matter how hard or consistent Bledsoe plays on the court, it means nothing if he can’t actually stay on the court. While injuries can’t truly be predicted, you can almost set your watch to a Bledsoe knee injury, with him going under the knife in 2011-12, 2013-14, and 2015-16. As flip as it sounds, this is setting up to be an off-year for a Bledsoe injury (knock on wood), so we’ll move on to Bledsoe’s other bugaboo — conditioning.

Despite Bledsoe’s chiseled frame, conditioning has been implicated as being behind his waning effort at times, with former coach Jeff Hornacek famously struggling to get Bledsoe to push the ball instead of walking it across halfcourt. But Bledsoe has tackled that issue head on and enters this season in tip-top shape after working with the team nutritionist on his diet and engaging in offseason workouts that included yoga, spin classes, and boxing.

“I love it,” Bledsoe told Paul Coro of azcentral.com about his improved conditioning. “I’m trying to keep that going for me, eating right, recovery, the whole nine, trying to get my body 100 percent.”

Bledsoe is now listed by the Suns at 190 lbs., down from 205 lbs. last season, and says he feels more energetic when on the court. If his hard work translates to a more sustained effort during games, it will be well worth the sweat he put in.

Lastly, but just as vital, Bledsoe must assume the role of leader off the court. He is not a natural rah-rah leader and will never be mistaken for the boisterous P.J. Tucker, but Bledsoe has taken steps to increase his influence with his teammates, such as organizing the team bonding trip out in San Diego over the summer alongside Brandon Knight.

The bigger test of his leadership abilities will come during the season, though, where more growing pains await and a congested backcourt will test the fraternity the players and coaches have been preaching since the end of last season.

“We definitely got to make sacrifices this season, and that’s probably one of the biggest things we’ve got to do to be successful,” Bledsoe said.

“Sometimes it’s your night, sometimes it’s not. You can’t be jealous of somebody else’s success. You just got to let them shine, you know, and be happy for them.”

Bledsoe’s talk of being a top-five seed in the West may sound like homerism of the highest order, but given the source, it’s not at all surprising. After all, here is a player who had the game he loves taken away from him — again — late last December and has been champing at the bit ever since to get back with his teammates and contribute to the positive environment coach Earl Watson has been building.

“Basketball is what we love to do. It’s fun. Why not come out and enjoy it?” Bledsoe told Tom Chambers and Tom Leander at Media Day. “I mean, you come around and have frowns all day, it’s gonna backfire on you. It’s gonna backfire (on) you on the court, backfire on you with your teammates. It’s just gonna be all bad.”

Let’s hope Bledsoe’s consistency includes that attitude as well. It’ll be needed.