VIDEO: Eric Bledsoe sinks the game-winner for the Suns in a win over the Utah Jazz
HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS — What good is an opportunity in the NBA if you don’t take advantage of it?
For Eric Bledsoe, formerly of the Los Angeles Clippers (where he served most recently as Chris Paul‘s back up), the first three years of his career served as the set up for the opportunity he’s taking full advantage of now with the Phoenix Suns.
The Clippers used Bledsoe to bolster their depth, a move that removed one of the most physically talented young (Bledsoe is 23) players at the position to a situation that would allow him to flourish without the restriction of playing behind a future Hall of Famer. That, of course, meant that Bledsoe would no longer be mentored by Paul and he would not be able to learn under Rivers, who helped smooth out many of the rough edges in All-Star point guard Rajon Rondo‘s game in Boston.
But the freedom Bledsoe is playing with under Suns coach Jeff Hornacek is helping Bledsoe emerge from Paul’s shadow in a way that will prove to the rest of the league that he’s ready to shed his promising prospect label and truly become a legitimate starting point guard in the league.
This is the part of the player metamorphosis that has always fascinated me. You never know for sure what a guy is capable of until he’s plopped into that pressure cooker on a nightly basis. Bledsoe — 22.8 points, 7.8 assists and 5.8 rebounds to go along with 50 percent shooting from the floor — has proved to be more than capable of handling the increased responsibility for a Suns team that has been stronger (3-1) out of the gate than most anyone expected.
I think it helps tremendously that Bledsoe is now working in an environment where everyone has been thrust into new roles with expectations on their individual contributions raised dramatically, as Paul Coro of the Arizona Republic pointed out after the Suns win over the New Orleans Pelicans Tuesday night:
Goran Dragic became a co-captain. Eric Bledsoe became a starter and a co-captain. Marcus Morris and Gerald Green have become rotation regulars. P.J. Tucker could be a full-season starter. Channing Frye and Miles Plumlee went from watching a season — for far different reasons — to starting. Alex Len and Archie Goodwin have gone from amateurs to pros.
“It’s a lot of guys who are getting a chance to prove themselves,” Tucker said. “I love it. Every day, we have guys around us who really want it and really want to play and help us win. That’s why we’re always going to be in games. It’s like night and day from last year. There are going to be inconsistencies, no doubt about it. But as long as we fight, play hard and play together, I can live with that.”
This season is a proving ground for most of the Suns, whether it is for bigger roles or bigger money — like Bledsoe and Tucker, who are in their contract years.
There is an eagerness about the group, whether it is to practice or improve. Coach Jeff Hornacek has enhanced that by opening up competition at every job and showing a willingness to turn to any player in key moments.
“We want them to be hungry because they want to win and do things as a team,” Hornacek said. “Within that, they’ll be able to prove that they can play this game at a high level. With Ryan, hopefully all the players he brings here are hard workers, because that’s Step 1 of anything. You could have the most talented guys in the world but if they don’t work hard, they’re not going to do well. We’ve got a bunch of guys on this team that play hard. That’s Step 1.”
For Bledsoe this chance to prove himself is even more crucial since he’ll become a restricted free agent at season’s end. He’s auditioning as a starting point guard for the entire league. The parts of his game that would have been cloaked from decision makers and the public as a back up will be on full display all season as the Suns’ catalyst.
How he continues to respond to that showcase factor will speak volumes about not only the player and competitor Bledsoe has become, but also about the player and competitor he could grow into in the coming years.
It’s enough to make the Suns, a team many had written off before the start of the season, a team to keep a close eye on as the season progresses, the same as Bledsoe!
VIDEO: Eric Bledsoe leads the Phoenix Suns in a win over the New Orleans Pelicans