The trade deadline came and went, and Eric Bledsoe, the Clippers’ sought-after backup point guard, remained a Clipper.
By not trading Bledsoe, the Clippers guaranteed they’d have at least one talented point guard on the roster if Chris Paul were to leave as a free agent this summer. They also kept on hand a developing, dangerous change-of-pace player who could be a difference maker in the playoffs.
The Clippers have the next year and a half to decide whether or not they will keep Bledsoe, a restricted free agent in 2014, as a core part of their foundation.
The 23-year-old point guard watched a recent game on an iPad with Clippers assistant coach Robert Pack. As they went over clips, Pack demonstrated where Bledsoe should have hedged when the Trailblazers’ LaMarcus Aldridge had the ball in the post.
“Bled is a student of the game,” Pack said. “His first two seasons, I’d usually be the one grabbing him to watch film. But this season, he’s beating me to the punch. He’s bringing the clips to me. He’s studying the opposition and looking for any breaks and advantages he can get.”
The two watched film for more than 30 minutes before Bledsoe suited up for what was his seventh start in nine games. With Paul recently out with a bruised right kneecap, Bledsoe had been thrust into the starting role. While he exceeded expectations, Bledsoe knew he was only scratching the surface of his potential.
“I think I’m doing pretty well, but there’s still a lot of room for improvement,” he said. “I need to come out and take it to another level.”
The hype surrounding Bledsoe can be traced back to a breakout performance in the 2012 playoffs, when he emerged as an athletic defensive pest with energy and upside.
As the Clippers prepared for their 2012 playoff run, Bledsoe, who averaged only 11 minutes of action in the regular season, wasn’t expected to contribute much. That quickly changed when he was given an opportunity against Memphis in the first round. He was surprisingly productive on offense (62.1 true shooting percentage) and suffocated the Grizzlies’ Mike Conley, holding him to just 25 percent shooting and a +/- rating of -19.4.
“I finally had confidence going in. My coach and my teammates had confidence in me all season,” Bledsoe said. “I just had to find it in myself. It took a while, but I played with something to prove in the playoffs.”
With the departure of Mo Williams in an offseason trade, Bledsoe became a full-time backup point guard this season.
Outside of high school and a small portion of his rookie season, Bledsoe didn’t have much experience at the position.
“Being the lead guard was an adjustment for him,” Pack said. “We’ve constantly stressed to him that he needs to be a leader on the floor, play with the pace that he plays at, but just make the right decisions with that pace.”
Over the summer, Bledsoe played competitive pick-up games at a local rec center in his hometown of Birmingham, Ala,, arriving at the gym at 9 a.m., working on his core and legs for an hour or two, and then spend the rest of the day playing basketball against former college and overseas players. No drills. No weight lifting. Just basketball.
Pack visited him in late August and the two ran drills at nearby Samford University, focusing on Bledsoe’s pull-up shooting off pick-and-rolls, spotting up for corner 3-pointers and learning how to pick his spots offensively, or, as Pack said, “the cerebral part of his game.”
Bledsoe participated in the Clippers’ summer pick-up games at their training facility and impressed his teammates.
“To see how much Bled has grown is just amazing to me,” Paul said earlier this season. “I’ve known him since high school. He was actually a camper of mine at my point guard camp. To see how his confidence has grown from last to this year is impressive.”
He’s always had the athletic gifts, but now he’s started to develop point guard habits, finding open cutters and shooters, connecting with Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan for lobs. He looks much more comfortable controlling the offense than ever before.
Bledsoe has been a statistical anomaly so far this season. His per-36 minute stats are in line with his starting numbers, suggesting he could be an All-Star candidate with increased playing time.
He started -- and performed well -- during Paul’s recent injury stint. He averages 18.5 minutes with Paul having returned to the starting lineup. With more traditional shooting guards on the roster -- Jamal Crawford, Willie Green and now a healthy Chauncey Billups -- Vinny Del Negro has opted to mainly deploy Bledsoe at point guard, and rarely alongside Paul.
“I just come in and provide that spark that we need to get everybody involved,” Bledsoe said.
“He’s a good defensive player. He likes to play center field and gamble,” Memphis Grizzlies head coach Lionel Hollins said after a recent loss to the Paul-less Clippers. “He’s got great quickness and great athleticism. … Just that aspect of his game, his athleticism, is what creates problems.”
Though he’s generously listed at 6-foot-1, Bledsoe has a deceptively long 6-foot-7 wingspan and a 40-inch vertical, allowing him to steal passes and block shots most players his size aren’t capable of reaching. “Bledsoe is a very good pressure guy,” Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau said earlier this season. “If you turn your back on him and expose the ball at all, they’re going to get it.”
Defense and energy are great attributes for a bench player, and a backup point guard is an important contributor, but if Paul re-signs with the Clippers as a free agent Bledsoe’s future with the team ultimately may depend on his ability to play significant minutes as a shooting guard.
If and when Paul re-signs, it wouldn’t make sense to pay Bledsoe a hefty sum to back him up. As reported by ESPN’s Chris Broussard, Bledsoe can earn somewhere between $7.5 million to $8.5 million per season as a free agent on the open market. With the new CBA luxury tax penalties, the Clippers couldn’t afford to commit that much money to Bledsoe unless he was playing starters’ minutes.
Everyone from Paul to Pack to Dwyane Wade has said Bledsoe is ready to start. Paul has even stated that he believes Bledsoe should have his own team and will eventually become an All-Star. That probably doesn’t happen for Bledsoe in a Clippers uniform.
The reality is that Bledsoe is going to get paid lucratively; it’s just a matter of where. It will be up to the Clippers’ front office to decide if he fits with Paul and Blake Griffin, as well as in the team’s long-term plans.
“Whatever happens happens. For right now I’m playing backup point guard for the Los Angeles Clippers,” he said. “Who knows what the future holds. I’m going to continue doing what I’m doing and try to get a win at the end of the day.”