As seamless as he’s made the transition look at times this season, Phoenix Suns guard Eric Bledsoe is still navigating his ways through unfamiliar waters.
In particular, the grind of playing big minutes night in and night out as a starter.
During his first three seasons in the league as a member of the Los Angeles Clippers, Bledsoe made 38 starts. The former Kentucky standout is nearly halfway to that mark just 20 appearances into his first campaign in Phoenix. Of those 20 appearances, 16 have also lasted at least 30 minutes.
There are times where he seems to have the role down pat, like the career-high 28 points he poured in just over a week ago in 116-107 win over the Sacramento King or the 26-point, 14-assist night he strung together in a hotly-contested 103-96 loss in Oklahoma City on Nov. 3.
But with the highs — and there have been plenty of them — have come notable lows, as well.
Case in point, Friday night’s come-from-behind 103-99 win victory over the Denver Nuggets. While Phoenix found a way to erase a 21-point deficit, it had little to do with the lethargic play of Bledsoe. In 30 minutes, the first-year Sun had as many field goal makes (4) as fouls (4), as he appeared to lack that extra spark that’s become a staple in the Valley this season. A bit more alarming is the fact it directly followed a combined 13-of-31 shooting performance against the Golden State Warriors and San Antonio Spurs.
According to head coach Jeff Hornacek, Bledsoe’s recent up-and-down play is nothing more than the product of what happens when a career reserve gets thrust into the starting lineup.
“It’s tough to go from 15 minutes per game to now averaging 35 minutes per game,” Hornacek said. “There are lessons in that. Some guys can jump right up there and the minutes don’t bother them.
“When you play just 15 minutes a game, you go out there with so much pent up energy from wanting to get out there on the court. Then you expend it. By the time you get a little tired, you’re probably coming out of the game. When you have to play 35, then it’s a different story. We want him to get to that point where [he can handle more minutes].”
While Bledsoe, who is leading the team in points (19.1) and assists (6.3) per game, adjusts to the growing pains that accompanies added responsibility, Hornacek noted that he can look to fellow backcourt mate Goran Dragic as an excellent source of guidance.
Outside of a 26-game stretch with the Houston Rockets to end the 2011-12 season, Dragic had never been counted on to handle starting minutes. That all changed when he signed a four-year contract to be the Suns’ starting point guard in the Summer of 2012.
Although he managed to lead Phoenix in most offensive categories during his first full season as a starter, Dragic’s experience in 2012-13 also featured its fair share of challenges — ones that have certainly paid dividends through the first 26 games of the Suns’ current campaign, as he’s second on the team in scoring with nearly 19 points per game.
“Is it realistic to see 35 straight minutes of hard play [from Bledsoe], probably not,” said Hornacek. But out of 35, there are a lot of timeouts. We want these guys to continue to push it. I think Goran for the most part is doing that for all of his minutes. Now, he’s had a year of playing those big minutes. But, Eric will get there. Maybe it’s a little conditioning.”
Don’t expect the Suns to ease Bledsoe through the process, though. If anything, Hornacek believes the best course of action is to continue to play him and play him a lot.
“We don’t want him to really pace himself,” said Hornacek. “We’ll try to give him the rest during timeouts and sitting him at different times just prior to a timeout to give him a couple of extra minutes there. It’s just something he’s working through.”