Is Eric Bledsoe the Next Big Breakout NBA Star?

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Is Eric Bledsoe the Next Big Breakout NBA Star?
Richard Mackson-USA TODAY Sports

Goran Dragic seems to think that new Phoenix Suns teammate Eric Bledsoe is in for a big year.

According to Matt Petersen of Suns.com, Dragic said: "He’s a mini-Lebron James. He’s got that big strength so when he's in the open court, he’s unstoppable. Like a lot of fans know, I like to play fast basketball. When I get the ball to the other guy, he’s going to run. We’re going to score a lot of points."

Bledsoe has been described this way before by none other than regular-sized LeBron James, so Dragic isn't alone in putting a high ceiling on the three-year player's talent. In fact, plenty of people have Bledsoe pegged as a legitimate breakout candidate now that he's in line to get starter's minutes.

But is all that talk justified?

 

The Case for a Bledsoe Breakout

Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

The best place to look for signs of the future is the recent past, and in Bledsoe's case, the 2012-13 season provides a whole mess of positive indicators.

He somehow went from being one of the league's least efficient offensive guards to one that knocked down nearly 40 percent of his three-point attempts. Credit an improved stroke and much better shot selection for the uptick in shooting accuracy.

But don't discount an overall increase in maturity and an improved understanding of the game, either. I mean, the guy spent two full seasons studying under Chris Paul. It would be hard for anyone not to learn a few things about playing smarter basketball in those conditions.

There's more evidence of Bledsoe's growth in his vastly improved turnover ratio. In the first two years of his career, the hyper-aggressive guard got himself into difficult positions often and rarely made the easy pass when it was available. As a result, he gave the ball away in more than 18 percent of his possessions.

Last year, that figure dropped all the way to a manageable 13.7 percent, according to ESPN (subscription required).

Those are noteworthy improvements in a couple of major areas of weakness. And they're all the more impressive because Bledsoe's strengths also got, well, stronger.

Bledsoe's Key Improvements
3P% TS% TO%
2010-11 .276 .499 18.9
2011-12 .200 .454 18.2
2012-13 .397 .513 13.7

ESPN

Bledsoe's unlimited athleticism would make him a terrifying defender even if he picked his spots, but his rabid wolverine mentality turns him into a perpetually frightening on-ball nightmare. Strong, fast and extremely aggressive, he attacks ball-handlers and is one of a select few defenders in the league who conjure legitimate fear in opponents.

Opposing guards simply don't want to dribble the ball in the backcourt when Bledsoe is on the prowl.

And everywhere else on the floor, Bledsoe's opportunism and blinding speed turn defensive possessions into highlights waiting to happen.

Beyond the jaw-dropping plays, Bledsoe provided real value to the Los Angeles Clippers' defense a season ago. When he was on the floor, L.A. held opponents to an offensive rating of 97.5 points per 100 possessions, a figure that would have been tops in the league. When he sat, the Clips surrendered a rating of 103.2, according to NBA.com.

Take those numbers with a grain of salt, as Bledsoe did most of his work alongside an excellent bench unit against weaker reserves. Still, it's hard to imagine a scenario in which his defensive tenacity wouldn't lead to top-notch overall production.

Immense physical talent, a track record of growth and increased opportunity combine to give Bledsoe a real chance at a breakout season for the Suns.

 

The Case Against a Bledsoe Breakout

USA TODAY Sports

Not so fast, optimists!

Let's all pump the brakes on a the idea of a guaranteed leap forward for Bledsoe in 2013-14. This is still a very raw player who benefited from an ideal situation in L.A. last year. Having made the case for Bledsoe's emergence as a star next year, it's only fair to provide a few reasons to temper that enthusiasm.

For starters, the 23-year-old remains extremely rough around the edges. That same speed that Dragic referred to as an asset can be a real detriment when Bledsoe gets out of control. In the same way, his aggression tends to cause problems for his team's defensive scheme.

Prone to ball-watching and possessing a tendency to give help when it's not necessary, Bledsoe often finds himself way out of position on defense. His athleticism usually allows him to recover, but there were far too many instances last season when Bledsoe's wandering ways led to open spot-up opportunities and even some easy isolation scores.

Synergy (subscription required) supports the anecdotal analysis.

Against pick-and-roll ball-handlers, Bledsoe was excellent, ranking in the top 15 percent of all defenders. That makes sense, as defending those play types requires direct, one-on-one engagement and enough strength to fight through the pick. In other words, there's really no way for Bledsoe to go sprinting off to help in those situations.

But he ranked in the middle of the pack against spot-up shots and isolation sets. We know Bledsoe is a good enough athlete to shut down both play types when he's properly positioned, but because he loves to go darting off when his man doesn't have the ball, it's far too easy to exploit him when he either forgets where his matchup is or rotates back too aggressively.

Even the slowest offensive players can drive around someone like Bledsoe when he's closing out at a dead sprint from across the court.

And sometimes, Bledsoe combines all of his mistakes into one play. Here, he gives up an easy back cut, rotates too aggressively about four different times and generally scrambles around in a chaotic possession that his mistake created.

It's fun to watch him sprint all over the place, but it's not a good way to play defense.

We know from the numbers that a highly aggressive Bledsoe was a big part of a successful defensive unit in L.A., so it's possible that the Suns could lose some of his value if they somehow get him to calm down. In that sense, head coach Jeff Hornacek will have to strike a delicate defensive balance with his new weapon.

Too much aggression could hurt the Suns defense. Too much refinement could rob Bledsoe of his greatest attributes.

On the offensive end, Bledsoe is going to have to prove that his improved shooting is real and that he can take on a bigger role as a facilitator in Phoenix's interesting dual combo-guard backcourt. With a much heavier load of minutes in store, whatever warts he was able to hide in a bench role for the Clippers are going to show up.

 

What Should We Expect?

Richard Mackson-USA TODAY Sports

Normally, it'd be useful to take Bledsoe's per-36-minute numbers from last year and just assume that he'll approach those figures in his starting role with the Suns. But Bledsoe is a physical beast (perhaps I've mentioned that before), and there's no reason he shouldn't approach the league lead in minutes played.

So, assuming he logs 40 minutes per game with roughly the same levels of productivity he generated last season, Bledsoe is in line for 16.6 points, six assists, 5.8 rebounds and 2.8 steals per game next year.

Those numbers seem reasonable, right? We know Bledsoe piles up the steals because of his style of play, so there's a good chance he ends up somewhere around the top of the league next year; 2.8 steals per game would certainly put him there.

And what if he learns to channel his athleticism in a way that generates more free-throw attempts? If you think about it, he really should draw more contact on his drives. If that happens, his scoring average could get close to 20 points per game.

Bledsoe can absolutely become a star in the near future. He's got all of the tools to do it. If his defense remains stout and his intensity doesn't waver as the finer points of his game round into form, Bledsoe could justify all of the excitement—if not the crazy comparisons—in Phoenix.

 

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