We're running a series of "exit interviews" of the 2011 Los Angeles Clippers. An overview and analysis, player by player, of all 14 Clippers who finished the 2010-2011 season on the roster. In this edition: rookie point guard Eric Bledsoe.
Name: Eric Bledsoe
2010-2011 Key Stats: 6.7 ppg, 2.8 rpg, 3.6 apg, 22.7 mpg
Years in the NBA: 1
Years with the Clippers: 1
2010-2011 Salary: $1,485,000
Contract Status: Signed through 2012; Clippers hold options through 2014
In a Nutshell
Imagine if John Wall had gone anywhere but Kentucky. Imagine if Eric Bledsoe, a five-star recruit himself, had received the reins to a team that would have been stacked with talent even in Wall's absence. I realize there's not much point in speculating -- for all we know, Bledsoe may have chosen the Wildcats because he had a hunch Wall would do the same -- but it's fun to think about what could have been.
Now imagine if the Clippers hadn't traded a future protected first-round pick to Oklahoma City last summer for the 18th overall pick in the 2010 Draft. Imagine Randy Foye running the point for the Clips while Baron Davis sat out virtually all of November. I'm not saying that the more-experienced Foye would have been definitively worse in that role than Bledsoe, but it certainly wouldn't have been pretty. Foye, after all, should never start at point guard; sure, he can handle the ball in a pinch and he's a nice combo guard off the bench, but he's always been an amazingly poor clock manager and, at this point, more suited to playing off the ball.
And Bledsoe, after the disaster that he was in Summer League, turned out to be a welcome surprise in filling in for Davis during that early-season stretch. Even though the Clippers weren't winning many games with him running the show, Bledsoe showed drastic improvement from July, when he looked like an overwhelmed JV player running with the varsity squad. Granted, he had plenty of downs as the season progressed, Baron returned and his minutes decreased, but the ups with this young guy were high enough to hint that the Clippers may have gotten a steal at No. 18. Like Al-Farouq Aminu, I'm not completely sold on Bledsoe being the Clips' future at his respective position, but in Bledsoe's case, I'm more willing to bet on his getting there.
Bledsoe may stand a shade over six feet, but that doesn't matter as much as his freakishly long wingspan (just under 6'8"). Combined with his strength and athleticism, he plays much taller than his listed height. Cliché, I know, but with Bledsoe, it's true - in purely physical terms, there are few point guards in the league capable of the things Bledsoe can do. In just his first season, he was third among all PGs in both rebounds per minute and blocks per minute, as well as seventh in steals per minute. And he did things like this (yes, he turns the ball over at the beginning of the clip, but watch how he never gives up on the ensuing play).
The highlights are just part of what makes Bledsoe's defensive potential intriguing. Like Aminu, he's got all the tools to be an excellent defender, and unlike Aminu, he's already filled out his frame and, at just 21, will gain even more strength as time goes on.
If he develops into the defender he's projected to be -- and I think he will; he was decent as a rookie -- he'll be a handful on the perimeter. He's quick with good lateral movement, and those long arms will always come in handy. He's a tenacious player by nature, and if he can build off that by learning how to fight through screens, chase his man until the very end of possessions and the like, he'll become the rare jitterbug that also happens to possess loads of athleticism. As of right now, he already knows how to use his superb leaping ability to collect uncommon amounts of rebounds and blocks, and we often saw Bledsoe out-jump crowds of taller players for the ball.
Offense, though, is a more complicated matter with Bledsoe, but he's displayed some promise on that end, too. Though he was atrocious in July, coughing up the ball on seemingly every other trip up the floor, he looked significantly more polished once the real season began. Of course, for a player as raw as Bledsoe, "significantly more polished" still leaves acres of room for improvement, but no one expected him to show any composure when he had to start in just his fourth NBA game. Then he ended up surpassing all expectations by averaging 10 points, 4.1 rebounds and 5.7 assists in November.
That kind of production, so early in Bledsoe's career, bodes well. It's not far-fetched to think that, at the very least, he could one day be a solid two-way player. With his wheels -- he's as fast end-to-end as almost any player in the league -- and quickness, he blows by defenders on his way to the rim. He gets up off the floor in a hurry, and I'd argue that Bledsoe would be a dangerous dark horse in the Dunk Contest, should he ever get a crack at the competition. That said, Bledsoe was at his best in his rookie season when he would get all the way into the paint and kick the ball out to the perimeter or draw an extra defender before dumping a pass off to Blake Griffin or DeAndre Jordan. He was exhilarating, if error-prone, in transition, and his turnovers stemmed more from shaky decision-making than any inherent flaw with his dribbling.
While Bledsoe still has a long way to go, the good news is that, with the ball constantly in his hands, he should show progress, and soon. It's no secret that the NBA is experiencing a "golden age" of point guards, and if Bledsoe can slow things down offensively while developing more consistency on defense, he could someday join the growing class of young, hot-shot floor generals.
Alas, Bledsoe didn't make a complete turnaround from his Summer League fiasco. Most disturbing was the fact that he turned the ball over during the 2010-2011 season at a higher rate than just about anyone else. His 5.1 turnovers per 48 minutes ranked as the fourth-worst mark in the league. The only players who coughed the ball up more frequently were DeMarcus Cousins (5.6 turnovers per 48 minutes), Russell Westbrook (5.3) and Steve Nash (5.1). Even then, that's not an entirely accurate statement. Cousins may be considered an outlier -- his inability to hold onto the ball was a major blemish in a fine rookie season -- but, when they were on the floor, both Westbrook and Nash handled the ball more frequently than Bledsoe, who logged his share of time off the ball, the Clippers often opting to put it in the hands of a more experienced player like Eric Gordon. That makes Bledsoe's propensity for giving up the ball even more alarming. Indeed, Bledsoe's turnover rate of 26.3% put him last among all players who averaged at least 20 minutes a game.
There are a few explanations for Bledsoe's tremendous struggles in taking care of the ball. For one, he was a poor ball-handler in college, even though he primarily played the 2 next to John Wall. With the Wildcats, Bledsoe averaged three turnovers a game, compared to 2.9 assists -- a terrible ratio any way you slice it. Perhaps it was for the better that he didn't play much of his high school position, after all. But that changed when he made the jump to the NBA, where, after a year-long layoff from manning the point, Bledsoe committed turnovers in bunches.
Then there's Bledsoe's decision-making, which, though improved from where it was in Summer League, remains his primary weakness. Granted, he was able to take it down a few notches from the hyper-speed pace that made him look like an over-caffeinated toddler at a playground. But all too often, Bledsoe would use his excellent penetrating ability to over-penetrate, frequently finding himself too far under the basket to create favorable passing angles. It was as if Bledsoe had a means of getting to his desired location but didn't know when to stop, and that lack of awareness eliminated many an assist opportunity.
When he did put himself in position to be a distributor, Bledsoe was decent, if far from cerebral. (Though he did show flashes.) I would wager that close to half Bledsoe's assists this season came in transition, where his warp speed often forced defenders to over-commit to Bledsoe's side of the Clippers' fast-break attack. Meanwhile, in halfcourt sets, Bledsoe remains a drive-and-kick guy who, as mentioned above, reduces his effectiveness by mishandling the ball or over-penetrating.
It's difficult to envision Bledsoe ever becoming a 10-assists-a-night kind of player. Which isn't as bad as it sounds; when you have Eric Gordon and Blake Griffin, two more-than-capable passers, you can go without a "pure point" on your team. But those guys also need to get theirs, and Bledsoe needs to find more ways of setting up teammates besides making the easy pass on the break. First, he'll have to develop more touch on all his passes (speaking of touch, he'll have to get more of that on the teardrop shot he used on occasion; when he's off, he's way off, but if he ever starts making it consistently ... watch out). It's no coincidence that the Clippers seemed to have to work much harder for successful alley-oops after Baron Davis was traded. Despite what you may think of him, Davis could have played a major role in accelerating Bledsoe's learning curve as a playmaker, but now he's gone. Mo Williams is a nice mentor for Bledsoe, but he's not exactly the strongest creator himself.
At any rate, it will be a major step for Bledsoe if he can rein in his turnover issues. It's going to take time, especially for someone who's still readjusting to the point guard position, but let's hope Bledsoe puts in plenty of work on his ball-handling this summer. The decision-making part will be more difficult, but that should also come along as he plays more games at a position he rarely got to play at Kentucky. There are other issues, including an unreliable jump shot, but sharpening his distributor skills and learning how to play dogged defense should be Bledsoe's main concerns for at least the next few seasons.
Future with the Clippers
Bledsoe's suspension shortly before the end of the season raised eyebrows, the move suggesting that the young point guard still has plenty of growing up to do. While that may be true, I wouldn't go as far as to say Bledsoe was a negative locker room presence in his rookie year. He competes, doesn't back down from bigger opponents, and comes across as humble and unassuming in his interviews. As is the case with Aminu, it's important to remember that Bledsoe is very, very young, and maturation will come with time and experience.
I have my doubts, but I'm more inclined to wager that Bledsoe will grow into a reliable rotation player than I am Aminu. For all his youthful play, Bledsoe has a certain brashness about him that suggests he could eventually become the kind of guy no opponent would want to face. Plus, like Aminu, he has all the tools to blossom into an impact player on both ends of the floor, and he should get an extended audition for the Clippers' future at point guard.
At least for now, the Clippers are counting on Bledsoe to impress them. While Mo Williams will probably stick around for the next couple seasons, after that, the Clips are unlikely to extend a 30-year-old shoot-first point guard. That would leave Bledsoe to fill Williams' shoes in the near future, and really, despite the early troubles, it's not a bleak forecast.
That said, if the Clippers do have a shot at landing a premier point guard after the new CBA takes hold, they almost have to take it, assuming they don't have to give up too much -- pairing, say, Deron Williams with the likes of Eric Gordon and Blake Griffin would be too good an opportunity to pass up. Should an All-Star-quality point indeed come knocking, Bledsoe becomes expendable, but it's possible that he stays on as an energetic, potentially game-changing option off the bench. He's been a pleasant surprise so far, and I'd be shocked if he doesn't show marked improvement next season.