Last week, Ben Golliver of Sports Illustrated wrote a long feature in the magazine about a group of players (John Wall, Paul George, DeMarcus Cousins, and Anthony Davis) that he called the NBA’s Stranded Stars. It got me thinking where exactly Suns point guard Eric Bledsoe falls on this spectrum-- how stranded he is, and how much of a star he is.
One area where he certainly fits the mold of a star is in the way he obviously separates offense and defense, and especially the disparity between how his mental focus on each side of the ball. Since arriving in Phoenix, Bledsoe has consistently taken on a larger role on offense as the roster is stripped down around him, culminating in a 27.2% Usage Rate in 31 games last year and 25.6% rate in 16 games so far this year. That burden on offense has shown up negatively on the defensive side of the ball.
Bledsoe still carries with him the reputation of a defensive stopper. Take one look and you see why. But watch a game like Monday’s circus against the Washington Wizards, and see Bledsoe cede a dozen or more of Bradley Beal’s 42 points, and understand his struggle to live up to that reputation.
Several of the worst habits of high-usage offensive players have recently shown up in Bledsoe’s defense: Ball-watching, steal-hawking, getting taken out of plays by screens, and allowing blow-by after stinking blow-by. Important to mention here is that Suns are actually 2.2 points per 100 possessions better with Bledsoe off the court (per nbawowy.com) as well. It’s been rough. I get that.
Additionally, the bench has been impressive this week. The 78-point performance from those players against Indiana on Sunday will stand out of course, but that unit has improved over the entire season and should be celebrated. Tyler Ulis, Alan Williams, and Jared Dudley have all played well and made this decision difficult.
Looking past that uncomfortable transition for Bledsoe though, his offense has been vital in getting this team to an even passable level on offense and especially in transition, where they try to gain an upper hand. We’re seeing this year in places like Philadelphia, Houston, Chicago, and even Sacramento the impact of having a lead ball-handler with a clear plan and above-average talent. Bledsoe demonstrates that impact at an elite level.
Young players like Devin Booker, Alex Len, and Dragan Bender are more efficient scorers with Bledsoe on the court. These are all part of the Suns’ young core, players on whom decisions are soon to be made, and who now look much better being set up by a near-elite offensive point guard. He ranks near players like Jabari Parker and Klay Thompson in Offensive Box Plus-Minus (single-stat representation of a player’s impact on the box score) through an up-and-down first month, and looks clearly more comfortable with the reins in his hands this season.
This week has been a microcosm of what Eric Bledsoe is capable of.
He’s a more confident three-point bomber this year than I remember in years past, which has allowed him to be a more purposeful and aggressive off-ball offensive player. The Suns could have used the two seasons ago, eh?
Even this year, though, Bledsoe has been able to make several versatile Suns lineups work. Developing chemistry with Devin Booker has been nice to watch, but even Ulis, Brandon Knight, and Leandro Barbosa have an easier time when they’re on the court with the Suns starting point guard. We don’t love seeing the starting combination of Bledsoe, Knight, and Booker (-12.4 points per 100 possessions), the trust Bledsoe has earned from coach Earl Watson is what makes the trio even passable.
Again, it’s his offense that keeps the ship afloat, and a young team competitive. The struggle with an inexperienced squad is finding points in low places-- those moments when the defense collapses inward, they snuff out options A-Y, and the offense is scrounging for an inch of room. Teams need a dominant creator in these times of crisis, and this week in particular has given me hope that Bledsoe can be that player:
That first highlight exemplifies a new skill that Bledsoe has flashed this year at a more consistent level: splitting the screen. When Alex Len or another Phoenix big man sets a good screen on Bledsoe’s defender, it’s over. The dribble moves and collection of flips and floaters has multiplied this year, leading to a more creative and decisive Bledsoe in traffic.
Beautiful to watch, and backed up by efficiency numbers. Bledsoe is up to 51.4% on two-point shots, the highest since his first season in Phoenix. When the three-point confidence leads to more made threes, his scoring numbers may finally blossom. Hi, ho!
Bledsoe can guard positions one through three in the half court, so his versatility extends to defense as well, even with his struggles on that end this year. The Suns are willing and eager to switch pick-and-rolls and cross-match in transition, so he often gets caught on players like Washington’s Otto Porter, and uses great strength and balance to stay with those bigger guys.
It happens occasionally that players with dominant defensive reputations struggle to live up to that reputation when they take on a bigger offensive load, but for Bledsoe, it seems it could be as easy as lessening that burden to get back to being a defensive game-changer. He’s not “stranded”, because there is talent around him. That talent is just yet to be maximized.
He still makes plays that show a keen awareness and timing that he came into the league showcasing:
The Clippers’ “Bench Mob” units from yesteryear flourished when Bledsoe was making plays like those to force transition and create chaos. That he’s been able to master the parts of the game that are less chaotic is a testament to hard work and intelligence.
If this week, and the early part of this season as a whole, is a sign of what’s to come, the Suns have found (and kept, for once!) a player capable of disrupting and propping up both the offense and the defense.