Eric Bledsoe the Right Star to Usher in Phoenix Suns' New Era

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Eric Bledsoe the Right Star to Usher in Phoenix Suns' New Era
Rocky Widner/Getty Images

The Phoenix Suns needed a star. Eric Bledsoe just needed an opportunity.

When the two sides came together this summer in a three-team, four-player trade, it seemed like a match made in heaven. Even if the on-court relationship looked years away from a meeting with basketball's pearly gates.

But the Suns didn't acquire Bledsoe for what he could bring to the court this season. Any thoughts of a hasty rebuild after the Steve Nash era were squashed during last season's 25-win campaign.

Bledsoe was brought in for what he could add to this franchise's future, which is still very much a mystery, but it looks brighter by the day.

Replacing a legend is an impossible task, and it's one even the biggest Bledsoe supporter wouldn't thrust upon him. But bringing star power to an organization that spent last season without it is a challenge the Kentucky product is more than ready to undertake. In fact, the process is already well underway.

 

Barren Desert

Christian Petersen/Getty Images

Before examining which items Bledsoe can cross off of Phoenix's checklist, we have to remember the situation that he joined this summer.

The Suns were reeling from their lowest winning percentage (.305) since the franchise's inaugural season in 1968-69 (.195). The organization was in shambles.

Future Hall of Famers Nash and Grant Hill vacated the roster in the summer of 2012. Reliable veterans (Luis Scola, Jermaine O'Neal, Jared Dudley) and not-so-reliable ones (Michael Beasley, Wes Johnson) followed their lead this past offseason.

After dealing Marcin Gortat, Shannon Brown and Kendall Marshall for a hobbled Emeka Okafor—and, more importantly, his expiring $14.5 million contract—the Suns had lost seven of their top nine scorers from 2012-13.

With the production lost, though, opportunity was gained. The Suns needed someone not only capable of packing the US Airways Center, but also a player that first-year coach Jeff Hornacek could build his uptempo system around.

The Suns needed someone like Bledsoe, a chiseled 6'1", 195-pound two-way force who'd probably be running Olympic sprints if he weren't blazing up and down NBA floors on a nightly basis.

The move was far from being risk-free. The Suns sacrificed the ultra-reliable Dudley (at least 10.6 points and 38.3 percent three-point shooting in each of the last three seasons) for a player who'd seen less than 20 minutes of floor time a night over the first three years of his career.

Even those who liked Bledsoe's future couldn't help but to question his present. A part-time player while with the Los Angeles Clippers, he'd struggled finding consistency as both a shooter (.431/.308/.749) and a playmaker (3.0 assists against 1.9 turnovers).

Still, there were signs of his oozing potential if you looked in the right places. He sliced his turnover rate over those three seasons (17.9 down from 26.3) while adding nearly five points to his usage rate (22.5 up from 17.9). His true shooting percentage (51.3), effective field-goal percentage (47.3) and player efficiency rating (17.5) were all career marks during 2012-13.

When given the chance to expand his role, by way of a Chris Paul injury, Bledsoe only solidified his stock as a starter. In 12 appearances with L.A.'s starting lineup last season, he put up 14.2 points, 5.3 assists and 4.8 rebounds.

Small sample sizes are tough to judge, though. Luckily, the early returns from Bledsoe's 2013-14 run with the Suns seem to validate his rising stock.

 

Not a Mirage

Christian Petersen/Getty Images

The 23-year-old sure knows how to make an entrance. His Suns debut performance (22 points, seven boards and six assists) either proved Goran Dragic was dead-on with his "mini LeBron James" assessment of Bledsoe, via Matt Petersen of Suns.com, or that he'd even undersold his new backcourt mate.

No player wants to be considered a poor man's anything, but you could do a lot worse than drawing that comparison to a four-time MVP and two-time champion.

Still, it's hard to place any labels on Bledsoe right now.

He might have dazzled in his debut, but his buzz has only grown in his two games since.

He followed up his sensational start with 18 points, six assists, five rebounds and a pair of steals in his second run of the season. The explosive floor general also showed that he can come up big when the game is in the balance.

Bledsoe poured in the final 14 points for the Suns, none bigger than his coffin-closing, three-point dagger with just seven-tenths of a second left in regulation to send a stunned Jazz team home in defeat.

He flirted with a triple-double his next time out, nearly spoiling Russell Westbrook's surprising return:

If Bledsoe really is the future of this franchise, then that future is now.

He leads the Suns in scoring (22.0), assists (8.7) and steals (2.0). His 6.3 rebounds are the second most on the team and tied for third among all NBA guards.

And he's doing all this while still struggling mightily with his shot (.409/.222/.788) and those same turnover issues (5.7 per game). He has holes that absolutely need filling, but a tremendously high ceiling if he can clean up those areas of his game.

Garrett Ellwood/Getty Images

An NBA scout broke down Bledsoe's game for ESPN The Magazine (ESPN Insider subscription required), identifying his tendency to play too fast as one of his biggest weaknesses. Bledsoe admitted that's something he needs to work on, but he added that his head is always in the right place.

"That's true, I do get out of control sometimes," he said, "but I'm always just trying to make a play."

His former teammate, Jamal Crawford, told Hoopsworld.com's Alex Kennedy that Bledsoe's definitely going to be making plays. A lot of them:

"He’ll definitely be a star. I don’t know when because everybody’s [learning] curve is a little bit different, but there’s no question he’ll be a star," Crawford said. "He has the athletic ability, and he wants to get better. He has gotten better."

Whether his star will shine in Phoenix may be a different story, though. The Suns could not reach an extension agreement on Bledsoe's expiring contract by the Oct. 31 deadline, leaving a hopeful Suns organization and fanbase teeming with uncertainty heading into the 2014 free-agency window.

 

The Perfect Storm

Sam Forencich/Getty Images

Not surprisingly, Bledsoe is unfazed by the lack of financial security.

"I'm prepared for the season, the season ahead of me," he told Paul Coro of The Arizona Republic while discussing his contract situation. "I’m prepared for this moment to be a starter, and I’m just going to keep working and working."

It's hard to think of anything that could rattle the young man.

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He played his way into first-round-draft-pick status while so much attention centered on his Wildcat teammates, John Wall and DeMarcus Cousins. He never fussed while losing minutes behind Chris Paul, Chauncey Billups and Mo Williams in L.A., calling the time he spent on the Clippers bench "a blessing," via Kennedy.

Bledsoe's been waiting for this moment for years, a relative lifetime in the basketball world. His play demanded the chance at a starting gig, and he's since been granted the keys to Hornacek's fast-paced offense.

He has max-contract potential, which he'll surely realize whether in Phoenix or somewhere else.

At this point, he's left little doubt that he's ready for the moment. The only question remaining is whether this league is ready for him.

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