We may only be eight games into the season, but Eric Bledsoe is already taking control of the Phoenix Suns.
And yet, at the same time, these fans did not have unrealistic expectations of the 23-year-old point guard. Most people realized that trading Jared Dudley and two second-round picks would not be enough to acquire a superstar.
Bledsoe had plenty of doubters, too, critics who exclaimed that he was nothing more than a spark off the bench and that he would choke under the pressure of being a primary option on his new team.
Right now, a couple of the weeks into the season, it looks like those critics couldn't have been more wrong.
So far, Bledsoe is averaging 21.1 points, 4.3 rebounds, 7.1 assists and 1.8 steals per game while shooting 51 percent from the field.
He has clearly become the go-to scoring option that the Suns have been desperately looking for. Last season, Goran Dragic—the team's top scorer—ranked 45th in points per game among all players. But now, Bledsoe is ranked 16th in the NBA and second among all point guards (with only Ty Lawson ahead of him).
But what makes his scoring even more impressive is the way that it is distributed by quarter. Bledsoe has a tendency to start off games cold and then heat up as time passes. And by the fourth quarter, he is usually an unstoppable force for opposing teams to deal with.
In the first half, Bledsoe puts up 7.4 points and 3.5 assists per game while shooting 48 percent from the field and 20 percent from downtown.
In the second half, he looks like a completely different player, averaging 13.8 points and 3.6 assists while shooting 54 percent from the field and 39 percent from deep.
Below is a chart of Bledsoe's point distribution by quarter using percentages. Despite playing approximately the same amount of time in each period, Bledsoe simply does a much better job in the last two quarters of the game. He averages 7.9 points in the fourth quarter alone, which is 37 percent of his total scoring.
He has clearly embraced the role of clutch scorer for the Phoenix Suns. Bledsoe already has one game-winner this season, and in that game, 17 of Bledsoe's 18 points came in the fourth quarter. Full highlights of his fantastic fourth quarter against the Jazz can be found in the video below.
With Goran Dragic struggling with minor, nagging injuries, Bledsoe has taken the reins of this team. Though he clearly hasn't won five games by himself, much of the team's early success has to be attributed to his second-half and fourth-quarter play.
Of course, Bledsoe hasn't completely dominated all of his competition. He still has plenty of flaws.
Ball control is still one of his major problems. Bledsoe averages 4.1 turnovers per game, which ranks fifth among all NBA players. Bledsoe alone has committed 33 of the team's 140 turnovers (24 percent) and has several more turnovers than Goran Dragic, Archie Goodwin, Ishmael Smith and Dionte Christmas combined.
Turnovers are to be expected in such a fast-paced offense. Even Steve Nash averaged about 3.5 turnovers per game in both of his MVP seasons.
But 4.3 turnovers per 36 minutes is clearly out of control. Hopefully this is simply a matter of adjusting to a new team and offense and that Bledsoe's ball control will improve later on in the season.
His other only notable flaw so far is his three-point shooting.
Bledsoe has made nine of 28 three-point attempts this season, which is a 32 percent rate. While that isn't terrible, it is clearly below average for a point guard, and the shot chart indicates that Bledsoe struggles in every three-point zone except for one in the center.
On the other hand, he is absolutely fantastic at attacking the basket, converting 33 of 50 attempts from under the rim (66 percent).
Luckily, three-point shooting is not a skill that is generally very difficult to improve (relative to other areas). Bledsoe has one of the greatest three-point shooters in NBA history as his head coach, and hopefully he can take advantage of that. If Bledsoe adds a consistent jump shot to his repertoire, he could easily be an elite, superstar guard.
Overall, Bledsoe seems to have become a great leader for this young, rebuilding team. He has been aggressive and yet has not shown any signs of arrogance. He has become the go-to scorer without playing unselfishly.
The Suns are a surprising 5-3 for a number of reasons. Gerald Green, Marcus Morris and P.J. Tucker have effectively spaced the offense with fantastic three-point shooting. Miles Plumlee has established himself as an intimidating defensive presence and a fantastic post player down low. And Markieff Morris even won Western Conference Player of the Week coming off the bench.
This team would not be nearly as successful without the performance of those key contributors. However, Bledsoe has been the one to really hold this team together, to combine all of those great individual performances into one collective team effort.
He may only be 23 years old, but Eric Bledsoe already appears to be the team leader that the Suns have been searching for.