Eric Bledsoe comes into his own

LOS ANGELES -- Eric Bledsoe knew what he was in for Wednesday morning when Los Angeles Clippers coach Vinny Del Negro told him he would be the team’s starting point guard for its exhibition game against the Los Angeles Lakers.

Chris Paul had hurt his right thigh during a scrimmage Tuesday afternoon, and with the Clippers playing three games in four nights and a back-to-back set to finish the preseason, Del Negro wanted to give Bledsoe the bulk of the minutes.

“I knew I was going to be playing a lot, especially when I knew Chris and Jamal [Crawford] weren’t going to be playing,” Bledsoe said. “I just came prepared.”

Bledsoe ended up playing 44 minutes and finishing with 22 points, 11 assists and 9 steals as the Clippers defeated the Lakers, 97-91. He smiled after the game when asked if he knew he was one steal shy of a triple-double.

“Yes,” Bledsoe said. “Chris and my teammates were telling me that I need one more, but I was just trying to play solid down the stretch. Steve Blake hit me with a couple of daggers back-to-back, and I was just trying to play solid defense.”

That Bledsoe was more focused on his defense and controlling the tempo of the game shows how much he has improved from last season. Almost as impressive as the triple-double he nearly posted was that he played more than 40 minutes and had but three turnovers. In just 23 minutes on Monday night, he finished with 4 turnovers and 8 points.

“I played pretty bad the last game,” Bledsoe said. “I just wanted to capitalize off the last game and come into this game with the mindset of being focused and attacking. My teammates kept telling me to be aggressive and get to the paint as much as I could, because players can’t stop me and it opens up shots for everybody else.”

As the game progressed and Del Negro realized how much Bledsoe was playing, he wanted to give him a breather; but the 22-year-old point guard refused.

“I kept asking if he was tired,” Del Negro said. “And he said, ‘No, I’m good.’ He’s young, athletic and we took some timeouts to give him a rest. We probably could have played Hank Thorns more minutes because he played well in the first half, but Bledsoe had it going. I didn’t see any fatigue in him so I thought it was only right to let him finish the game.”

While Del Negro was vigilant of Bledsoe’s minutes during breaks, Bledsoe’s mentors, Paul and Chauncey Billups, were in his right ear and his left ear, like a couple of corner men in a boxing match, telling him what to do and what to watch. The veteran guards have taken Bledsoe under their wing since coming to the team, and his growth has been fast-forwarded ever since.

“They keep telling me to get to the paint,” Bledsoe said. “They want me to be aggressive. Every time I’m on the court, they tell me to be aggressive because everybody fears my speed. Nobody can stay in front of me, plus I’m strong, so I can get to the hole and finish at the same time. So they always tell me to get to the paint, not only to score but to get my teammates involved.”

As much as Bledsoe has improved over the offseason, his major turnaround occurred during the playoffs last year. In 40 regular-season games played last year, Bledsoe averaged 3.3 points in 11.6 minutes after coming back from offseason knee surgery, which sidelined him for 23 of the team's first 24 games. During the playoffs, however, Bledsoe averaged 7.9 points while shooting 59 percent from the floor and 43 percent from 3-point range. In the Clippers' second-round playoff series against the San Antonio Spurs, he averaged 11.5 points while shooting 70 percent from the field and 50 percent from 3-point range.

“He almost had a triple-double tonight and it almost seems like he’s not trying at times,” Blake Griffin said. “He can disrupt the flow on defense so easily. The playoffs last year were huge for him and it gave him the confidence to come out and play like this.”

Paul smiles when he talks about Bledsoe. It’s the same smile he has when he’s watching him play on the court. Paul befriended Bledsoe as soon as he arrived in Los Angeles and would frequently take his “little brother” to lunch after practices to talk about basketball and life.

“It’s exciting to watch him play,” Paul said. “I’m E.B.’s biggest fan. I’m always on him about being aggressive. He’s fast. He’s faster than I was at my fastest point. It’s amazing to see him play with that speed and now he has that confidence. Our one-two punch is amazing. When I come out of the game, it’s not a backup coming into the game; that’s a starter in this league coming into the game.”

Bledsoe has adopted some of Paul’s moves and said it’s just as much a byproduct of watching Paul play on a nightly basis as it is being tutored by him in practice.

“I kind of watch Chris when I’m on the bench, and I see how easy he gets his shots and gets his teammates open,” Bledsoe said. “I watch that and I translate that over to my game.

“I want to pick the pace up and play different than Chris. You know, Chris thinks [about] the game and walks the ball up [the court], and I just try to pick it up and play defense for the most part and pick up the pace when I’m in the game.”

Paul and Bledsoe admit the most fun they have isn’t watching each other play, but being on the same court together, which is a backcourt Del Negro has used often in the preseason and will use extensively during the regular season, especially while Billups is out.

“I love it because everyone is focused on him and I get the backdoor cuts and he gets everybody open,” Bledsoe said. “I love playing with him.”

Paul just shakes his head when he’s asked how good Bledsoe can become if he continues to develop.

“Amazing,” he said. “The sky’s the limit for him.”