Eric Bledsoe has taken a very unusual path to superstardom's doorstep.
Bledsoe was a big-time recruit out of the state of Alabama, and was wooed to Kentucky to play under "star guard maker" John Calipari's tutelage. This should have made him one of college basketball's biggest names, but because Calipari had also lured arguably the country's top two recruits in John Wall and DeMarcus Cousins as well, Bledsoe was relegated to something of a third wheel.
Bledsoe acquitted himself well in Lexington. Though there was significant doubt that both he and Wall could coexist in the same backcourt, the pair took the Wildcats to the Elite Eight, blazing the trail as they would be the first of Calipari's many Freshman Phenom teams. Bledsoe started every game and played significant minutes right away. However, with John Wall running the show, Bledsoe played off-ball more often than not, and so his season -- from a statistical standpoint -- was a little short of spectacular. I expected him to return and finally be the focal point of the team, but Bledsoe put his name in the draft, despite most projections putting him outside the lottery. It was little surprise then, after Wall went first overall and Cousins fifth, that Bledsoe lasted until pick #18.
Bledsoe had an up and down rookie season with the Clippers, and just as it appeared their might be an opening for him to ascend to the starting lineup, GM Neil Olshey executed the biggest trade in franchise history, nabbing Chris Paul. Bledsoe would not see much game action in his second regular season (though internally the organization continued to rave about his potential), but then a curious thing happened. After earning gradually more playing time in the season's final weeks, Bledsoe was unleashed in the team's second round playoff matchup against the Spurs. Though the Clippers were swept, Bledsoe shined, making 21 of his 30 shots (good for 70 percent) and playing stifling defense on Tony Parker, who shot just 36 percent for the series.
If this performance seemed like a fluke, Bledsoe not only carried over this improved play to his third regular season, but even showed continued progress, adding an element that hadn't been there before: a competent three point shot. By this time, Bledsoe was no longer a raw athlete with "upside"; he was a productive rotational player clearly capable of increased court-time. Blocked by newly re-signed franchise player Chris Paul, Bledsoe became a highly sought after trade piece, fetching the Clippers a pair of quality shooters in J.J. Redick and Jared Dudley and sending the 23 year old guard to the Suns.
In Phoenix, Bledsoe took yet another step, and that leads us to the present. Once again, Bledsoe was paired with a high-usage combo guard in Goran Dragic, who had a breakout year of his own. Bledsoe will undoubtedly have many suitors as a restricted free agent, but it's possible that due to this pairing, Bledsoe is still somewhat underrated.
Strengths and Weaknesses
Perhaps the most exciting aspect of Bledsoe's game is that he appears to be still developing as a player, slowly improving what were previously weaknesses and turning them into strengths. His first few years in L.A, Bledsoe struggled badly adjusting to the NBA three-pointer, making just 26 percent from behind the line. Since then, he's improved dramatically, and now takes the longball more often, too. Bledsoe has also gotten a lot better at converting baskets at the other high-value point: in the paint. He shot a career high 60 percent at the rim last season, a very strong number for a 6'1 guard, made all the more impressive given his number of attempts there. If all that wasn't enough, Bledsoe also nearly doubled his free-throw rate, which played the biggest role in improving his true shooting percentage from slightly below league average to a very solid 58 percent.
Those are some of the qualities Bledsoe has only just recently acquired. What he's always been able to do is use his outstanding quickness to beat his man, at either end of the court. On offense, he excels at getting into the lane (and now that he has a reliable jumper, he is even better at this, attacking closeouts and making defenders pay for playing him too close), and on defense, he is arguably one of the game's best ball-pressure guards. In Hal Brown's excellent piece here, you'll see Bledsoe's D grades out extremely well in Defensive Real Adjusted Plus Minus. According to 82games.com, Phoenix defended over six points per 100 possessions better with Bledsoe on the floor. Synergy also rates him well, crediting him with allowing just 0.84 points per possession(the same as Trevor Ariza, but significantly better than his other FA point guard contemporaries). After posting superhuman block/steal rates in limited action prior to his arrival in Phoenix, those numbers regressed somewhat to normal, mortal levels, but his ability to create turnovers remains a positive.
Bledsoe's biggest issue lately seems to be staying healthy. A meniscus injury kept him out for over two months last season, and a few bumps and bruises caused him to miss time the year before, as well. The other slight dent in the armor is a tendency to be a little over-agressive with the ball, leading to a above-average (meaning bad) turnover rate. Bledsoe is not a prolific assist man, either, though this can partly be attributed to the personnel around him.
Fit with the Mavericks
After the failed experiment with Darren Collison at point guard, it doesn't seem too likely that Rick Carlisle will want to hand the keys to the car to a 24 year old again, but if the goal here is to acquire the best possible players, Eric Bledsoe needs to be in the discussion. He immediately upgrades what was a major issue for last season's squad -- point guard defense -- and his offensive game is turning into something that could be accurately described as "Monta plus."
Bledsoe can get to the hole almost whenever he likes (and on a per minute basis he gets there more than Monta), he takes fewer of the dreaded "long twos," and has turned himself into a good (though not great) three point shooter. Incidentally, Bledsoe -- like Dirk -- shoots astonishingly well from straight on, as his shot chart will attest. Bledsoe probably isn't quite the ideal floor spacer you'd like to have replacing Calderon, but the total package is still pretty damn good. Bledsoe is also one of the NBA's best rebounding point guards.
With respect to Carmelo Anthony, I would say one could make the argument that Bledsoe is the better free agent, based on three factors: (1) Bledsoe is still very young, and even relative to his age has significantly less mileage on him, (2) Bledsoe is a standout player at both ends, while Anthony is not, and (3) As a restricted player, he will cost a good deal less than Anthony will.
Obviously, Carmelo's track record is longer and, well, better, and as a pure scorer Bledsoe doesn't hold a candle to him. Still, in an NBA where dynamic franchise point guards are taking the league by storm, Bledsoe represents that ultra rare instance where such a player actually becomes "available." The first real move of free agency, after all, was Kyrie Irving getting an extension. Fairly soon we'll probably be saying the same thing about Damian Lillard.