Robin. Scottie Pippen. Eric Bledsoe? The best sidekicks of all time? Victims of being overlooked, overshadowed by another greater? Are these three the product of time and circumstance to be Mr. #2? We already know for a fact that Robin is Batman’s right hand man no matter what he does to try to stand out, green spandex and all.
And don’t get Pippen started on being Michael Jordan’s sidekick. As we well know he doesn’t like the label, but his #2 sign is as recognizable as the Starbucks symbol on every street corner. The question is, does Bledsoe belong in this category as well? An extremely talented and promising player, but is the shadow cast by teammates too much for him to overbear to write his own superhero story?
Bledsoe has always been ‘the other guy.’
Kentucky: All-American and No. 1 pick John Wall.
Los Angeles: All-World PG Chris Paul.
Phoenix: All-NBA rising star Goran Dragic.
In the midst of a heated free agent period hotter than a Phoenix summer afternoon, the 24-year-old Bledsoe wants to be paid max money like a #1. But does he deserve it? Can a sidekick ever truly shed that stigma and become el numero uno? That is exactly the four-year, $48 million question the Suns have to ask themselves. Let’s take a deeper look at Bledsoe’s game and see if he is #1 max material.
WHY BLEDSOE ISN'T A No. 1 PLAYER
Eric Bledsoe is an elite talent with big-time upside at only 24. He is an electric athlete and plays with a chip on his shoulder (most #2’s do). Nicknamed Mini-LeBron, he can do a little bit of everything. (Tell me if it seems odd that his agent is also Rich Paul, LeBron’s agent. Might be some strategic marketing going on there with that nickname. Wink, wink). However, there are still some facets of his game that need to be refined for Bledsoe to garner and cash in on max money.
First of all, what is he? Is he a PG? Is he a 2-guard? In this day and age of the NBA, it's not necessarily the end all-be all to have a strict position label (Russell Westbrook). But it is important to have elite skill sets.
Let’s first look at that PG side of Bledsoe. In 2013-2014, Bledsoe averaged 5.5 assists per game. That ranks him even with… Joakim Noah. Sure, Noah is a great passing big man, but it’s probably not the ideal player you want to be statistically tied at the hip with when it comes to assists and you’re a point guard.
As a PG, controlling the tempo is an absolute must. All of the greats are able to do so and put their finger prints on each game. (CP3: Controlled and steady. Magic: Creative and intuitive). Bledsoe’s calling card is high tempo and using his world-class athleticism. So one would think he should be very high level in transition.
Well, that’s not exactly the case. Bledsoe is in transition situations 23.5 percent of the time and is only converting at slightly over a 1.0 points per possession.
And I know what you’re saying: “Anything over 1.0 is a positive sign.” Right, for every case except for transition situations. Transition needs to be at a 1.25 rate or higher. After all, transition situations are already advantageous to the offensive player. Bledsoe ranks in the bottom 43 percent of the league in transition, putting him 235th and behind the likes of transition aficionados Tim Duncan and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist.
And if these stats weren’t world-changing, in these transition situations Bledsoe is turning the ball over 18.7 percent of the time. Far too high for an elite point guard. He’s averaging 3.3 assists per game. Westbrook gets the bad rap for being an out of control turnover machine, but he’s averaging the same amount as Bledsoe while playing more minutes and producing more assists.
Let’s take a look at Bledsoe from the 2-guard position. High level 2-guards in the NBA must be able to extend the defense and shoot at a clip of over 38 percent from beyond the arc. In 2013-14, Bledsoe shot a very mediocre 32.7 percent, ranking him even below our favorite low-percentage, step-back fadeaway poster boy Brandon Jennings.
In unguarded catch-and-shoot situations, Bledsoe is only shooting 32.4 percent, ranking him in the lower 36 percent of the NBA. Ironically he is shooting a better percentage, 38.5 percent, in guarded situations. Maybe he needs to attend the Brandon Jennings’ School of Contested Shots.
Too high of a turnover rate and not an elite shooter; two areas that need to be enhanced if you want to be a max player.
WHY BLEDSOE IS Mr. #1
At only 24 years old with his first season of being a full-time starter under his belt (when healthy that is), Eric Bledsoe hasn’t even come close to reaching his full potential. Mini-LeBron has shown flashes of brilliance that give him a strong case to cash in on big.
Bledsoe is unproven being able to wear the cape and carry a franchise on his shoulders. But like it always is, that double-edged sword word potential is as tantalizing as the forbidden fruit that it comes from.
Each year, Bledsoe has shown progressive improvement with more and more court time and added responsibility. His win/shares per 48 minutes have rose from .008 in his rookie year to a respectable .140 this past season with the Suns. Rising steadily as well throughout his first four seasons in the league is Bledsoe’s player efficiency rating, 19.6, ironically putting him one spot ahead of his former Kentucky Batman John Wall (max deal) and everyone’s NBA Final’s darling Kawhi Leonard (likely to get max money).
From the point guard position, Bledsoe is extremely effective in pick-and-roll situations in which he is in 37.9 percent of his offensive touches. This ranks him in the Top 75 percent of the league and in front of players such as Manu Ginobli and Russell Westbrook.
Pick-and-roll situation for a point guard is a very important statistic to be efficient in, especially with the high percentage of offensive touches Bledsoe gets in these settings. Bledsoe is also a very efficient isolation player.
Very efficient and isolation are usually not two words I would ever use in the same sentence. But for Bledsoe, this efficiency comes in the form of playmaking, not shot-volume forcing. Similar to the ability LeBron uses in isolation but on a smaller level. Oh yeah, that’s right, Mini LeBron. Bledsoe is shooting 42.1 percent in iso situations. Without a double team in single covered iso situations, Bledsoe ranks in the top 84 percent of the league, ahead of the master of one-on-one himself, Carmelo Anthony.
From the 2-guard perspective, Bledsoe shoots it well enough in spot-up situations to keep defenders honest. He might not have the consistent three-point range that he needs yet (something a shooting coach can quickly diagnose and fix; hint to you Phoenix, get with the times) but he does convert in spot-up mid-range shooting 43.4 percent and a points per possession of 1.103. Mid-range jumpers aren’t the most analytically efficient shots, but whenever a player is converting at a rate of 1.1 ppp or higher teams will live with that.
What might be the most valuable piece of Bledsoe’s game is his motor on the defensive end and on the glass. Bledsoe possesses one of the highest rebound rates for a guard at 8.0. Of the elite point guards in the game, only Westbrook rates higher.
Defensively Bledsoe holds opponents to 0.839 points per possession while creating a turnover 12.9 percent of the time. Offensive players are only scoring at 37.1 percent when guarded by Bledsoe and his foul rate is extremely low at 7.7 percent. Bledsoe has the defensive versatility to effectively guard the 1, 2, and at times the 3 when needed. Sounds like someone we all know on a slightly smaller scale? Yep. Sure does.
Bledsoe is extremely versatile, both offensively and defensively. And in a league that is becoming more and more focused on players being able to ‘do one thing great,’ Bledsoe provides the rare ability to play multiple guard positions at a high level both offensively and defensively.
Bledsoe’s rare mix of talent and huge upside are big reasons why the Suns have been sweating out the free agency battle and know they can’t afford to let him walk. Dragic and Bledsoe in the backcourt for years to come in Phoenix might be hotter than the egg-frying on concrete summer days.
So the entire debate in the Suns mind comes down to, does Bledsoe truly have Mr. #1 potential? Or will he be engulfed in the sidekick shadow that has covered him his entire career.
I know max money is a tough pill to swallow for any team in the new unfriendly CBA era. If the Suns are able to stomach it, then they will reap the benefits with a playoff berth this season and success in the upcoming years with a strong young nucleus. And the one to lead them into the Wild West – not Robin, not Pippen, and surely not Tonto (I hope you know your Lone Ranger references). Nope, it’s none of those #2’s. It’s Mr. #1 himself, Eric Bledsoe.