Welcome to King of the Court, our daily celebration of the best performances in basketball from the night that was. We’ll be keeping track of the best player of every night of the NBA season, and tallying the results as we go along.
King of the Court: Eric Bledsoe
Eric Bledsoe is having a hell of a 2017 so far. In 10 games since the new year, Bledsoe is averaging 24 points, 5.2 rebounds, 8.4 assists, and 1.5 steals for the Suns. Extrapolate those numbers over a full season, and Russell Westbrook would be left as Bledsoe’s only peer in 2016–17. Sunday night’s game between the Suns and Raptors was supposed to be a celebration of two vastly underrated point guards whose success hasn’t quite translated to the kind of individual acclaim worthy of their talent. Kyle Lowry’s snub as an All-Star starter ignores just how instrumental he’s been in the Raptors’ excellent season, whereas Bledsoe’s argument for an All-Star berth will forever be a nonstarter, especially since he’s having to compete against players at the caliber of Westbrook, James Harden, and former teammate Chris Paul. There was no contest between who was the better point guard on Sunday: Lowry put up a stinker of a game; Bledsoe put up the best statistical performance of his career, with 40 points, 6 rebounds, and 13 assists on 11-for-17 shooting, and a perfect 14-for-14 from the free throw line in the Suns’ 115–103 upset of the Raptors in Toronto.
It can admittedly be easy to lose track of Bledsoe. For so many years, he served as either a backup, or the wild card in dual-point-guard lineups that were seemingly designed to both take advantage of Bledsoe’s natural gifts and to save him from himself. More than four years ago, while he we was on the Clippers, a nickname stuck: Mini-LeBron, a nod to Bledsoe possessing the body of an All-Pro strong safety and his propensity for chasedown blocks he had no business accomplishing at only 6-foot-1.
Actually, let’s take a second to marvel at the heroic shit he pulled off on a regular basis:
He was a small wonder, hurtling down the court with the velocity of space junk entering earth’s atmosphere. But it came with a comprehensive insurance policy: every other year, Bledsoe has suffered a serious injury, knocking him out for a significant chunk of the season. After last season’s meniscus tear, Bledsoe has returned looking more human than ever before, and yet, this is also the most at ease he’s looked running the show.
In the past, the high pick-and-roll was simply a means of creating an alley for him to explode to the rim; these days, he’s far more likely to be playing them at half-speed, finding and manipulating seams with precise pocket passes. Bledsoe’s assist percentage is about as high as it’s ever been, but he’s turning the ball over at career-low rates, accounting for usage. The more the game has slowed down for Bledsoe, the more he’s beginning to resemble his old mentor in Chris Paul on offense. And while Bledsoe’s vertical leap and max hangtime isn’t what it was four years ago as a 23-year-old, he’s still a playmaker on defense, trading in those patented chasedown blocks for denials out on the perimeter that rely on anticipation and playing angles (Bledsoe has 20 blocks on the season, and nine of them have come on shots from 10-plus feet).
Should you wonder what the halfway point on a Westbrook-CP3 spectrum might look like, Bledsoe might be your answer. His refinement has turned him into a point guard’s point guard, but even then, his transformation still has a freakish quality to it: for a player to be decimated by injuries year after year and still be this athletic is proof of just how anomalous Bledsoe is, physically. Bledsoe won’t get an All-Star nod, but his recent tear hasn’t gone unnoticed. Boiled down to its essence, the point guard’s most important duty is to maintain control. After years of waiting his turn, coupled with the years lost to injury, it’s heartening to see Bledsoe finally given the opportunity to run a team the way he’s always had the potential to.