During a Clippers practice in 2012, after Eric Bledsoe's frenzied second unit whipped the starters again, Lamar Odom walked off the floor with Chauncey Billups and shouted his prediction for Bledsoe's future: "Big Shot, when that boy learns to speak English, he is gonna be a bad man!"
Billups and Bledsoe laugh about the story now, but Odom wasn't joking. Bledsoe was a sullen introvert from Birmingham with a muddled Southern twang; he rarely said anything, and when he did, teammates could not understand him. "You wanna be a point guard?" Billups would ask Bledsoe. "You have to be vocal. You have to encourage people."
There were never questions about Bledsoe's freak athleticism, or his brash confidence. John Calipari, his college coach at Kentucky, once asked Bledsoe who was faster -- Bledsoe or John Wall, the first in a long line of point guards who have overshadowed Bledsoe. Bledsoe didn't hesitate, Calipari remembered: "Come on, Coach. I'm faster."
Bledsoe-watchers in 2012 and 2013 just weren't sure if he could command a team. Bledsoe pouted about playing time after the Clippers acquired Chris Paul and Billups in the same wild week. "He was another young, spoiled player," Billups recalled. He ate badly; team staffers would find piles of McDonald's wrappers strewn about Bledsoe's car.
When it became clear in the summer of 2013 that the Clippers would trade him, Robert Pack, the L.A. assistant who worked most closely with Bledsoe, warned him: "It's gonna be your show. You're gonna be the leader somewhere. You can't pout anymore."
Somewhere became Phoenix, only injuries and a glut of point guards confused Bledsoe's role again -- "the story of my life," Bledsoe said, laughing.
Not anymore. Bledsoe just wrapped the best month of his career, a stretch that included two 40-point games and wins over San Antonio and Toronto. He started February in similar fashion with 41 points in a loss to the Clippers.
He has flashed a new level of craft, exciting chemistry with Devin Booker, and a willingness to give up the ball in Phoenix's proto-Spursy offense. If the mismatched Suns were better, Bledsoe would have received All-Star consideration. "You know the league has to promote certain guys from certain teams," Calipari said. "Maybe if Eric were in the East."
He's also talking now, and teammates can make him out "maybe 95 percent of the time," Bledsoe said. (P.J. Tucker still gives him crap about his accent.) "He actually talks in huddles these days," said Jared Dudley, the Suns' backup power forward. Dudley sits across the "gambling table" from Bledsoe on the team plane, and between games of boo-ray, Bledsoe peppers him with questions -- about All-Star candidates, roster issues on other teams, and how Bledsoe might reach the next level.
Talking more is a real part of that journey. Earl Watson, the Suns' head coach, coaxed Bledsoe out of his shell by leaving it to him to call out plays during walkthroughs. "It's crazy to hear all the yapping he's doing out there now," said Pack, now an assistant with the Pelicans.
Bledsoe even eats healthy -- chicken, salmon, avocados. "Man, avocados?" he chuckled. "Stuff like that, I never thought I'd ever eat."
Bledsoe's ascension raises an obvious question: Should Phoenix, sporting a bundle of 20-and-under prospects, sell high on Bledsoe, now 27 -- and select his successor near the top of a draft loaded with point guards? Remember: Bledsoe has three knee surgeries in the rearview. His value is cresting, and the Suns could flip him for future assets that match the timelines of Booker, Marquese Chriss, Dragan Bender, and whomever they pick in June.
The Suns are resisting after watching Bledsoe's growth over the last six weeks. "This is the best I've ever seen him play," said Ryan McDonough, the team's GM. "The learning curve for point guards is steep. We think Eric will play better in his late 20s and early 30s, right as Devin is entering his prime."
Watson is more blunt: "I can almost guarantee Devin and Eric will be on the same team next year," he said.
In the L.A. days, Pack would show Bledsoe on film how he was moving too fast to see teammates. He'd be at the rim, lofting a prayer over a big man, before any other help defenders crept away from the Clipper shooters dotting the perimeter. "He couldn't read the game as fast as he could play it," Pack said. He was predictable.
He'd zip ahead so fast in transition, teammates didn't have time to fan out around him for open 3s. Pack challenged him: On the break, have a vision for your first pass before you cross half court. That would require waiting a beat for teammates, or at least thinking about where they might set up shop.
"He would play at 100 miles per hour," said Billups, who still calls Bledsoe "Nephew" when they chat (Bledsoe calls Billups "Uncle"). Billups and Paul would remind him: "You have to play at two speeds." Being so fast would make any change-of-pace game even more deadly.
Bledsoe listened, and learned from watching Paul. He has mastered the art of slithering around a pick, slowing down, keeping a defender on his hip, and surveying the floor for the best possible option:
He loves doing the Steve Nash thing, where he scoots under the rim, pops out the other side, and picks out whichever teammate the flustered defense has left open.
He times his pocket passes so they almost look like another dribble -- a disguise to throw defenders off the scent:
He's a vicious finisher around the basket. Big men don't scare him. Bledsoe will jump, collide chest-to-chest with Rudy Gobert types in midair, watch those behemoths fall backward, and rain floaters over them. He's like a boxer working the body.
Truth is, Bledsoe has had most of that stuff in his game for years. He could make all the basic point guard reads -- drive here, draw help, kick there. The advanced stuff eluded him. He'd hold the ball a second too long, hunting a driving lane for himself, and watch a precious passing window slam shut. When he dumped it off early, it would be too soon -- the forfeiture of an opportunity to probe one step further, coax one more help rotation, and discover something better.
That timing is coming now, and Booker is helping. Bledsoe will abort drives early if he spies Booker flying toward an open triple:
He doesn't throw that pass when Booker is open. He throws it when Booker is about to become open.
Bledsoe and Tyson Chandler are finally in a groove on the pick-and-roll -- the Chandler lob dunks are back! -- and Bledsoe knows opposing defenders will scrunch in from the weak side to block Chandler's path to the rim. When Bledsoe spots that helper skulking inside, he'll pull up and sling a crosscourt laser to an open corner shooter:
Hold the ball another half-second, and Dario Saric, the help defender there, will arrive in Chandler's path, regain balance, and ready himself to sprint back toward T.J. Warren. Instead, Saric has no chance to stop, reverse his momentum, and challenge Warren's shot.
Bledsoe and Booker connect regularly on a play, called "Wildcat," where Booker slides off a screen toward the left corner at the same time as Bledsoe runs a pick-and-roll up top. If Booker has daylight, Bledsoe will cut short his drive and zing a diagonal pass that meets Booker at the spot:
"It is the evolution of a point guard," Watson said. "You start to understand the patterns of a defense. When you get really good, you start to dictate those patterns."
When Bledsoe holds the ball, he does so with a purpose beyond chasing points. He baits. He manipulates. He doesn't always make the pass the defense expects -- the one most point guards make most of the time. He'll surprise by hitting the next guy in the chain, often from ridiculous angles:
Add it all up, and Bledsoe ranks around the 90th percentile among all pick-and-roll ball-handlers this season, per Synergy Sports, with his turnovers at a career low. He's doing all of it amid cramped spacing, alongside a power forward, Chriss, who is plainly unready for major NBA minutes.
"He has improved his decision-making," McDonough said. "He's not getting out of control as much as he used to."
It's popular to suggest Bledsoe focused on craft only after knee injuries sapped his athleticism. Bledsoe rejects that, even if he concedes he's not the comet he once was.
"It's just experience," Bledsoe said. "This is only my fourth year starting. Everyone who came into the league with me was kind of ahead of me."
Teammates say Bledsoe has gained more trust in Booker now that Booker has worked through a horrific early-season shooting slump. "When a player is struggling like that, sometimes guys aren't as willing to give him the ball," Dudley said.
Even as he approaches his apex, Bledsoe is still only something like the eighth, ninth, or 10th-best point guard in the NBA. He cannot be the elusive best player on a championship team. A team cannot hand Bledsoe the ball to pound on every possession and expect to win 55 games. If you have the eighth-best version of Chris Paul, what, really, do you have?
The Suns know this, which is why they are using this season as ground zero for the installation of an equal-opportunity offense that apes elements from Watson's old stomping grounds with the Spurs (as a D-League coach) and Blazers. To win big, the Suns will eventually have to coalesce into something larger than the sum of their parts by sharing and moving -- by making things easier for each other, and keeping the defense scrambling.
That requires Bledsoe to give it up, get it back, and (gasp!) even be useful playing off the ball. Wall forced him into that role at Kentucky, but pulling it off in the NBA is a different thing -- especially for a career 33 percent shooter from deep who doesn't scare anyone spotting up.
You see Bledsoe going through Tony Parker's paces at the start of possessions, and then catching the ball in attack mode against a defense nudged at least a hair off-balance by all the preceding motion:
Bledsoe doesn't hold the ball as long, or dribble it as often, as most starting point guards, per NBA.com tracking data.
Booker is ahead of schedule as a pick-and-roll ball-handler; Bledsoe can lurk off the ball as Booker bends the defense the other way, catch a pass from his partner, and blow by defenders rushing back out to him:
"We actually think Eric is even better when he gives the ball up and gets it back on the weak side," Watson said. "It gives him a live dribble. He's like a triple threat."
Sloughing some of the creative load off onto Booker should eventually allow Bledsoe to play entire games with peak ferocity on defense. He should be the best point guard defender in the league, but he isn't. That has made him a strangely polarizing player among rival executives, including some with teams who would make good Bledsoe trade fits.
A Bledsoe who pounds the ball and takes possessions off on defense is of limited interest. A Bledsoe who thrives as the second- or third-best player in a motion-style offense and smothers opposing point guards -- that's the guy people want to see. Great defense and passing is how the 8th-best version of Chris Paul becomes a championship-level player on a better team.
But the evolution is in its infancy. Bledsoe will still dribble the air out of the ball a few times every game. It takes years for any team to develop liquid continuity on offense -- for the system to flow naturally from one action to the next, instead of stuttering between them.
Bledsoe is shooting just 32 percent from deep, his worst mark in five seasons, and his release can be too languid. In the playoffs, whenever Bledsoe gets there next, teams will duck under picks and dare him to hit jumpers. His history of knee issues is scary.
All of this would seem to make Bledsoe an intriguing trade candidate as the deadline approaches in three weeks. (Nobody wants Brandon Knight, by the way.) It's just hard to find a good fit.
The Nuggets are quietly exploring what they might get for Emmanuel Mudiay and multiple picks, sources say, but they're in no rush to move Mudiay, and the Suns may not want him when they could simply draft a point guard.
There aren't that many teams with a need at the position, and not much reason to exchange Bledsoe for another established guy -- say, Reggie Jackson or Ricky Rubio -- unless the other team includes a pretty damned good pick to sweeten the pot.
If the right team offered a good wing or center, plus a high first-round pick, the Suns would at least have to listen. But teams are reluctant to trade lottery picks in February, before learning where they fall in the draft order. Philly and Dallas don't appear interested in flipping their best draft assets for a player at Bledsoe's level. The Pelicans, facing Jrue Holiday's free agency, have no salaried players (aside from the untouchable Anthony Davis, duh) of much interest to Phoenix.
Chicago doesn't have much to offer. The Kings and Nets have zilch. Unless the Suns love Jusuf Nurkic, the Nuggets may not have the right non-Mudiay pieces. The Knicks need a long-term answer at point guard, but they should hoard their picks, and they are embroiled in another Melo-drama entirely of their own making.
That leaves my favorite fake Bledsoe trade: something like Nikola Vucevic, Mario Hezonja, and the Magic's unprotected pick for Bledsoe and Alex Len. Substitute Elfrid Payton for Hezonja if you'd like, but again, the Suns are sitting on a top-three pick in a point guard-heavy draft.
The Magic went deep into talks for Bledsoe before the Clippers traded him to Phoenix. They remain divided on whether Payton, surging a bit over the last six weeks, is the solution. They want to make the playoffs ASAP.
There are obvious complications, including whether the Magic would part with their pick -- even with some protections -- after swapping last year's (plus Victor Oladipo, gulp) for Serge Ibaka. Phoenix may not have the political will to take a step back in Year Seven of a playoff drought.
The Suns and Bledsoe are happy to stand pat. Bledsoe has made Phoenix his offseason home.
"We are in almost every game now," Bledsoe said. "Next year we'll know how to win. Everything takes time."
The team wants to explore what is crackling between Bledsoe and Booker.
"Let's see how deep we can get Eric to see the game," Watson said.