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Phoenix Suns Player of the Week: Eric Bledsoe is becoming a leader

The point guard is adding layers to his game, and it’s unlocking potential for the Suns.

NBA: Minnesota Timberwolves at Phoenix Suns Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Quietly, even silently perhaps, Eric Bledsoe has become one of the NBA’s most patient point guards. While his ability to explode in transition and find the right path toward fast break offense has improved greatly this season, the most noticeable and impactful improvement has been in the most basic of NBA situations.

This season, 17 players in the league have been the ball-handler in 300 or more pick-and-roll possessions. Of those 17, Bledsoe ranks fourth in points per possession, at 1.02. This means that when Bledsoe is running the pick-and-roll (the crux of the Suns’ offense), the Suns are scoring at an elite rate. He is behind only Lou Williams, Isaiah Thomas, Kyle Lowry and James Harden in this category, to put it in perspective.

Of those five players to be averaging over a point per possession, Bledsoe has the highest shooting percentage as a pick-and-roll ball-handler. Even as a relatively small player, Bledsoe has gotten much better at fighting for space in the paint and getting easier shots off. Eddie Johnson mentioned on the broadcast of Sunday’s Raptors game that many of Bledsoe’s tricks are reminiscent of his former teammate Chris Paul. Looking at plays like these, it’s hard to disagree:

What’s most impressive about Bledsoe’s improvement as a pick-and-roll showrunner is how he uses the explosiveness he’s always had to his benefit in more peaceful situations. Look here how he uses three-quarters of the court in a simple screening action to find an open teammate:

Or this one, a little more impressive, in which Bledsoe flaunts a skill we hadn’t really seen before, that befits the “mini LeBron” nickname he earned early in his career: the wraparound pass.

The Suns’ offense is 2.7 points better per 100 possessions with Bledsoe on the court, according to nba wowy. It’s because of passes like these, as well as aggressiveness when scoring opportunities come.

He shot 6/16 on threes this week, a number inflated by an impressive 5/7 night in Toronto. In that game and many others this season, Bledsoe looked comfortable shooting off the bounce when defenses gave him room. He’s one of the only 32% three-point shooter in the league that defenses are afraid to leave open, but they won’t give him the room much longer.

Lastly, the Suns’ offense craters to an efficiency mark that would rank 29th in the league when Bledsoe sits. That means there is a 6-point swing between when Bledsoe is on the court and off it, per nba wowy. That’s just behind pick-and-roll élites like Kyle Lowry (7.4 point swing) and Isaiah Thomas (9-plus point swing). Even the loudest critics of Watson’s veteran-heavy rotation are silent about Bledsoe’s 33.1 minutes per game; we all know the team would devolve into one of the worst in the league without him.

Which brings me to the defense. The Suns are actually 3.3 points worse per 100 possessions with Bledsoe on the floor, but like other high-usage offensive players, that number is cloudy. Bledsoe plays over 30 minutes per game, mostly against other starters, on a young team. He carries a big load in a tiring offense, and is on the court next to minus defenders at the other guard spot for the entire game, most nights. The rim protection behind him is inconsistent, and he looks tired quite often.

That being said, he can (and should) be better. He runs as well through screens as any guard in the league, staying attached to his man at least well enough to contest shots. But put him on any player bigger than a traditional point guard, and he’s toast.

Against DeMar DeRozan on Sunday, Bledsoe stood no chance, forcing Watson to play P.J. Tucker 32 minutes, mostly matched up against DeRozan. He mostly can’t switch onto big men and put up a worthwhile fight at his size.

His ball pressure forces breakdowns elsewhere, and while the Suns frequently create scoring runs out of turnovers on defense, Bledsoe’s big week scoring came next to a single steal in three contests. Basically, it’s hard to measure Bledsoe’s impact on a weak defensive team, but a player as talented and physically gifted as he is should be impacting opposing offenses more than he currently is.

The All-Star reserves list arrives this week, and Bledsoe is an assumed no-show. This is perhaps the most concrete evidence that he does not positively impact his team as much as he could, or even as much as other stars are able to. While a career-high on the road against the Eastern Conference’s two-seed is incredible (and pretty fun to watch), the next step for Bledsoe is to continue this growth toward a role that helps the team around him even more. As others improve around him, it’s up to Bledsoe, clearly the best player, to lift the team higher.

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