PHOENIX — The NBA playoffs started this past weekend, and they did so without Eric Bledsoe.
For someone who got a taste of postseason play early in his career, sitting on the sidelines for a second straight season burns inside the Phoenix Suns point guard.
“A lot,” said Bledsoe, whose playoff resume includes a combined 17 games while with the L.A. Clippers over his first three years in the league. “Right now, I probably won’t even turn on the TV when I go home, so it burns a lot. Since I got here last year, it’s just falling short; and then you got to watch the teams play in the playoffs (in) the spot we should’ve had. It’s a tough watch.”
And very motivating.
Before leaving US Airways Center after exit interviews last week, Bledsoe promised to be “Ten times more dedicated” this offseason.
That starts, he said, with something simple: just being around, both his teammates and the arena working out.
Bledsoe did neither a year ago when his status as a restricted free agent limited his availability to the Suns, presumably by his agent.
Now that he and the team have entered into a long-term partnership — a five-year, $70 million contract was signed just before training camp last year– this offseason can focus solely on improvement.
“The exciting thing for us about Eric is he still just starting to scratch the surface of his potential,” general manager Ryan McDonough said. “Last year he started for half of season and you saw glimpses of it. I think there were some questions externally, certainly not from us, but could he do it as a starter, could he do it over the course of an 82-game season. I think he certainly proved that he could with the numbers he averaged.”
Bledsoe led the Suns with 17.0 points and 6.1 assists, while his 5.2 rebounds per game were fourth-best on the team.
“He’s a dynamic player,” McDonough said. “He made progress this year.”
Among point guards, Bledsoe ranked sixth in shooting (44.7 percent), ninth in scoring and 14th in assists. He recorded 13 double-doubles, tied for eighth-most with Toronto’s Kyle Lowry and Charlotte’s Mo Williams.
Plus, his defense — 1.6 steals and 0.6 blocks per game, averages that placed him eighth and second, respectively, at his position — separated him from the pack.
“He’s one of the best perimeter defenders in the league,” McDonough said. “He has the ability to neutralize other elite point guards — I don’t know if neutralize them, but slow them down a little bit, which is very valuable on a team.
“With that being said he still has areas where he needs to grow and improve.”
Only Oklahoma City’s Russell Westbrook, Washington’s John Wall and Milwaukee’s Michael Carter-Williams committed more turnovers than Bledsoe’s 3.4 per game. His 1.80 assist per turnover average was 42nd among 49 qualified point guards.
“I thought I had a great year playing, but obviously it wasn’t good enough so next year I got to get even better,” Bledsoe said. “There’s a lot I need to get better at…my leadership, mental approach to the game. There’s definitely a lot of areas I need to get better at. I’m definitely going to put in a lot of work.
“You can pretty much say the talent isn’t the question. It’s just mentally. Mentally I need to be there.”
Some of Bledsoe’s mistakes can be contributed to age (25) and inexperience, since 2014-15 marked his first full season as a starter, in addition to the talent around him.
“We’ll certainly do a better job of getting him some help next year, getting him some more shooting to surround him with,” said McDonough, adding he hoped to reduce Bledsoe’s stress level while on the floor. “We’ll try to find the happy-medium next year where he’s playing a good amount of minutes, but we’re not overworking him and overloading him and asking him to do too much.”
Bledsoe played the fourth-most total minutes (2,800) among point guards and averaged the sixth-most per game (34.34).
A lot? Sure, but a significant sign right knee troubles that limited him to 43 games a year ago are behind him.
Bledsoe started 81 games this season, missing only a date at Sacramento on Feb. 8 for the birth of his son.
“A few games stand out,” McDonough said. “The game against Oklahoma City we played here where he almost had a triple double (28 points, 13 rebounds and nine assists) and played great defense on Russell Westbrook; and the game in Houston last month where he had 34 points and eight rebounds, four assists, whatever he had in that game. In those games he looks like one of the best players in the league.
“The key for him will be seeing how consistent he can be. He certainly has a bright future, 25-years-old. We’re very confident he’ll take a big step again next year.”