Eric Bledsoe’s career night against Raptors exemplifies growth in complementary role
Sweeping a back-to-back set against two Eastern Conference teams sputtering in very different respects doesn’t diminish the Phoenix Suns’ growth. Even if it’s projecting more toward 35 wins than 25 at this rate, it’s improvement, nonetheless.
The health of T.J. Warren, despite his quiet production since returning from a head injury, could be part of Phoenix’s baby steps in the right direction. Devin Booker’s stellar start to the calendar year certainly helps.
But secondary has been the play of point guard Eric Bledsoe, who in a 115-103 win Sunday at Toronto, put together a career-high 40 points to go with 13 assists. It’s the first 40-plus-point, 10-plus-assist game for a Sun since Steve Nash’s 42 and 12 in December of 2006.
Don’t let it fool you: those 40 points aren’t as impressive as the 17 shot attempts Bledsoe took to get there.
The total is not as telling as his 13 assists — it was just the 16th time in a Suns uniform that Bledsoe recorded double-digit assists for a game. Five of those assists turned into open Booker threes.
Those 40 points came by Bledsoe playing as a facilitator.
More and more, he’s playing with purpose while running the offense. Against Toronto, Bledsoe hit 11 of his 17 shot attempts, went 14-for-14 at the stripe and 4-for-7 from three-point range.
Coincidentally, two of his better performances of the double-double type have come this year against the Raptors and point guard Kyle Lowry, an All-Star who was arguably one of the best players on Team USA in the Rio Olympics. Lowry shot just 5-of-17 against the Suns on Sunday, scoring 15 points and missing all but one of his nine threes.
In theory, Bledsoe fulfilling his potential would include following a path similar to Lowry, a late-blooming lead guard whose shooting, bulldog mentality on defense and ability as a secondary scorer have the Raptors chasing the Cavaliers in the Eastern Conference.
Of late, Bledsoe, who at 27 is three years Lowry’s junior, has looked more and more Lowry-like.
By appearances, he has let the game come to him more and more, yet he’s taking as many shots and his usage is as high as it was before.
Bledsoe’s assist-to-turnover ratio has spiked from 1.98 in December to 2.71 this month. He’s playing nearly five more minutes per game and — like Booker — has a positive net rating for the first time this year. It was minus-7.5 in December and sits at plus-3.8 through 10 games in January.
Bledsoe’s personal offensive rating has improved each month, from 92.5 (four October games) to 101.5 (November) to 104.8 (December) to 114.1 this month. Much of that has been about forcing things less and deferring to Booker when the 20-year-old shooting guard has gotten hot. The Suns have slowed their pace considerably of late, and Bledsoe has benefitted from that; surprisingly, he’s a poor transition player due to his 20-percent turnover rate on such possessions, per Synergy Sports.
Maybe most importantly, Bledsoe has found his three-point shot — he’s hitting 39 percent this month but including that is still just a 31-percent shooter on the year. Sunday, the shooting stroke opened up the driving lanes. Only two of Bledsoe’s shots came at the elbows.
Bledsoe’s history of knee injuries is, in all likelihood, tied to his steps backward on the defensive end.
If we’re to read into his attacking mentality on offense, perhaps his athleticism that helped him so much on the other end is starting to come back. Whatever the case may be on defense, it’s clear the point guard is hitting his stride on offense, playing reactionary ball instead of over-thinking.
Bledsoe being his best isn’t about him taking the most shots or scoring the most points. Bledsoe at his best is playing the perfect complementary role a la Lowry aside starting swingman DeMar DeRozan.
In the middle of his sixth NBA season, it seems the Suns’ point guard is starting to figure that out. It doesn’t hurt he has a few other players in Warren and Booker who should be able to carry the scoring load.