LAS VEGAS -- To prepare for what figures to be their best shot at the first NBA Finals appearance in franchise history, the Los Angeles Clippers have spent this offseason plugging the holes in their roster with players who have been there before. Or, at the very least, with ones advanced enough in their careers to truly appreciate such an opportunity.
The Clippers moved quickly before free agency began to deal for Lamar Odom, a two-time champion with the Lakers, and recently brought back former Finals MVP Chauncey Billups even though the combo guard lasted only 20 games in his first season in L.A. and figures to be on the sidelines when the 2011-12 season begins. And the team also opened its checkbook for veteran free agents Jamal Crawford and Grant Hill, who have 29 years of NBA experience between them but only one trip to the conference finals.
Yet, one of the keys to any potential championship run, and one of the biggest bright spots in the Clippers’ first postseasons series win in six years this past season, is still young enough to suit up for the club’s team here at Las Vegas Summer League.
With the owner Donald Sterling, team president Andy Roeser, head coach Vinny Del Negro and director of player personnel Gary Sacks looking on from their courtside seats, Eric Bledsoe, a first-round pick in 2010, has taken center stage for the Clippers’ 14-man summer squad.
But after energizing the team with his speed and energetic play this past season, particularly on the defensive end, where the plus-minus maven has quickly become his team’s best on-ball defender, Bledsoe has made his biggest impression by being able to fade into the background.
A tough feat considering he’s the only roster player left on the Summer Clippers’ roster now that both Travis Leslie (strained right calf) and Trey Thompkins (bruised left knee, strained Achilles) are sidelined with injuries.
“Coach just said to come here and play my game and just try to win,” said Bledsoe, who is averaging 12.3 points (on 44 percent shooting), 5.7 assists, 3.7 rebounds and 3 steals per game for the 1-2 Clippers.
His game, however, hasn’t always been so easy to define.
While the 22-year-old is listed as a point guard, he has spent his first two seasons in the league shuffling between both guard spots. The versatility helped provide lineup flexibility for the team’s deep backcourt last season, but Bledsoe, who moved off the ball to pair with John Wall in his one season at the University of Kentucky, still remains unpolished running the team’s offense, as evidenced by an assist rate ranked 42nd among point guards last season.
His ability to conduct the Clippers’ shows becomes even more of a necessity next season, when Bledsoe will likely be tasked with manning the 1 for the second unit quite often now that Mo Williams has moved on to Utah.
When asked after the Clippers’ second game in Las Vegas, an 86-80 victory over the San Antonio Spurs, what he was looking to see from Bledsoe this summer, Del Negro said, “Leadership, run the team. He’s such a great athlete you just get him out there. Kind of control the tempo of the game, attack when he needs to, get us in our sets. But just run the team as a leader out there.”
While he has flashed the athleticism and quick reactions that allowed him to consistently provide a big spark for the Clippers this past season, Bledsoe has been at his best in Las Vegas with the ball in his hands, where he has shown the steadiness and confidence of a more veteran player. His 5.7 assists per game also rank second among summer league participants through seven days -- not an easy task given that the bulk of players around him aren’t as accomplished marksmen as the ones he’s used to playing with in the regular season.
The dividends of half a year in the Chris Paul School For Point Guards are starting to show.
“It’s been great learning from him, especially when I wasn’t playing when I was hurt,” said Bledsoe, who missed 25 of the Clippers’ first 28 games of the season while recovering from a torn lateral meniscus in his right knee. “Just as far as his decision-making. He’s got a high basketball IQ so I just try to learn from him.”
Two years removed from showing up in Las Vegas as a fresh-faced rookie dependent on his athleticism to get virtually everything, the player the Clippers were able to hold onto in last offseason’s trade for Paul seems to be slowly growing into the one they hoped he’d become.
“I’ve gotten a whole lot better since then,” Bledsoe said.
The Clippers are counting on it.