Something exciting became apparent in the Clippers victory over the Memphis Grizzlies Wednesday night. It wasn’t the depth of this squad, we knew about that. It wasn't Jamal Crawford putting up 29 points on 14 shots and reminding us that he was James Harden before James Harden was James Harden. Shame on us for forgetting. It wasn’t that Lamar Odom could be a force on the defensive side of the ball. Interesting, but not quite the take away.
The season opener revealed something Clipper fans have been patiently awaiting for two years: the emergence of Eric Bledsoe. The 22-year-old guard entering his third season out of Kentucky; known as "Mini-LeBron" to his teammates, had a breakout performance during the 2011 playoffs. But the sample size was small, and after two seasons of erratic play it seemed a little fluky. Stellar summer league and preseason performances added support, but summer league and preseason performances aren’t exactly the best measuring sticks.
Listed at 6'1" and a sturdy 195 pounds, Bledsoe is among the quickest players in the league. The combination of speed, strength, and athleticism the young talent possesses make him a one man wrecking crew. But the most important measurement is his heart. This kid plays every possession like it’s his last. And the mixture of his passion and physical attributes allow him to excel, despite having few go-to skills. It allows him to play top-flight defense. First team all defense quality defense, perhaps. It allows him to rumble and tumble through defenders on a fast break and finish for a basket and a foul, looking more like a running back on 3rd Down than a point guard. He never gives up on a play and his energy and effort are infectious. When he steps on the court, the entire team (even the bench) gets hit with a jolt of energy. They take his persona. They get defensive stops as a team. They go on runs as a team. Bledsoe is like a pair of jumper cables. Most importantly, he has gained the trust and support of his teammates.
Eric Bledsoe is his own species of hybrid guard. He doesn’t quite have the passing or decision making ability of a point guard, nor the outside shooting touch of an off guard, although both areas have improved since his rookie campaign. But he creates plays, making an impact with ball pressure and as a terror in transition. His game is rough around the edges, but he does a little bit of everything to get the job done. He's like the NBA version of the 2011 Tim Tebow. Tim Tebow 3.0 is probably more appropriate.
Make no mistake about it, Tebow 3.0 or not, there wont be any controversy over who should start for the Clippers (we would like to see him and Paul share the floor more often, actually). And is it any wonder that Bledsoe's evolution has occurred as Paul's understudy? CP3 is the best point guard the NBA has to offer. He outthinks his opponent while slowly and methodically picking them apart. By the final buzzer, opposing fans can hardly be mad at the guy. He's like Denzel in Training Day, just so hard to root against. He could put up a Triple-Double in a win against the Lakers and the purple-and-gold faithful would probably just laugh it off like "man I remember when we had that guy for a couple hours." If there's a difference between Paul and Denzel's character, it’s that the 6-foot guard lacks Alonzo's insanity. Although his reluctance to push the ball in transition is puzzling at times. But as Bledsoe continues to incorporate Paul’s style and management into his own game, the sky is limit for him. Now he will probably never acquire his sensei’s full sense and understanding of the game, but he can learn a lot, while his physical capabilities will make up for some of his mental shortcomings. Luckily for both the Clippers and Bledsoe himself, the man we’ve come to call FOlshey played hard-enough-ball with the Hornets, rejecting a proposal which included him.
But that's where Bledsoe’s role becomes clear, and that's why he's so vital to the Clippers. Calling him a change of pace player is an understatement; Tebow 3.0 doesn't fit into clichés. And as the Clippers and us fans reap the rewards from his improved on court abilities, L.A basketball’s best kept secret is about to pop up on everyone’s radar. Which makes one wonder, which teams will offer him a starting role and enough cash when he enters restricted free agency? And how will the unpredictable Donald T. Sterling respond when it happens? The salary cap being what it will be and the team’s payroll uncertain, we’ll only know with time. But there’s one thing you can be sure of: the basketball community will be keeping their eye on Eric Bledsoe.