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NBA Saturday: Eric Bledsoe Reaching New Heights

The Phoenix Suns’ disappointing start has overshadowed Eric Bledsoe’s strong play this season.

Jesse Blancarte

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It has been a tough season so far for the Phoenix Suns. In a surprisingly weak Western Conference, the Suns currently sit in 11th place with a 12-19 record. There are several issues for the Suns right now, including the ongoing Markieff Morris situation, Tyson Chandler’s injuries, close losses to mediocre teams, poor crunch-time execution, turning the ball over too much and poor defense in transition among other things. While the Suns have failed to meet expectations so far, Eric Bledsoe has been a bright spot for Phoenix this season.

Between the large number of star point guards in the NBA today and the Suns’ recent struggles, Bledsoe’s career-year has gone largely unnoticed. In 35 minutes per game, Bledsoe is averaging 20.9 points, 6.3 assists, 4.1 rebounds and 2.1 steals while shooting 45.3 percent from the field and 37.5 percent from three. He is averaging career-highs in scoring, assists and steals and is shooting the ball as well as ever with a 55.7 True Shooting Percentage.

Bledsoe was a non-threat earlier in his career from distance, shooting just 27.6 percent and 20 percent from beyond the arc in his first two seasons in the league. Now Bledsoe is a real threat from distance as he is shooting 37.5 percent on a healthy 4.3 three-point attempts per game. Bledsoe isn’t exactly Stephen Curry in terms of shooting proficiency, but among all players shooting two or more pull-up three-pointers per game, Bledsoe ranks third in terms of accuracy, shooting 40.8 percent on 2.4 pull-up three-pointers per game (just ahead of Curry, who is shooting 39.6 percent on 5.5 attempts per game).

Bledsoe still stands to improve significantly as a shooter considering he is shooting 36.5 percent on catch and shoot three-pointers and, as we can see in the shot chart above, less than 20 percent from the corners. However, he is now enough of a threat that opponents have to guard him closely out at distance, which gives him more opportunities to use his impressive speed and athleticism to attack the rim. Unfortunately, Bledsoe is shooting slightly below league average at or near the rim this season, which is surprising when you consider how explosive he is. However, it is early in the season and Bledsoe could certainly improve his proficiency around the rim moving forward.

In addition to his improved three-point shooting, Bledsoe has improved significantly as a pick-and-roll ball handler since his early days in the league. As of December 26, Bledsoe has been the ball handler on 258 pick-and-roll possessions, a play that is generating .98 points per possession, which places Bledsoe in the 86.7 percentile. Bledsoe has improved his timing, change-of-pace dribbles and patience in the pick-and-roll, which is paying off for the 26-year-old guard who too often relied on his athletic ability in past seasons. Many of these skills started improving in his time with the Los Angeles Clippers, where he briefly backed up and learned from Chris Paul. Between his improved shooting from distance and increased proficiency in the pick-and-roll, Bledsoe has turned himself into one of the most productive point guards in the NBA.

But while Bledsoe has always been a gifted player, he has never really been considered a top-tier point guard. Players like Chris Paul, John Wall, Stephen Curry, Russell Westbrook, Kyle Lowry, Kyrie Irving and Damian Lillard are generally considered to be in a tier above Bledsoe, though Bledsoe is playing well enough that we should probably start reconsidering his standing among his peers. However, there are shortcomings in Bledsoe’s game that need to be corrected moving forward. Bledsoe turns the ball over too often (3.6 per game), he’s still not an elite ball handler like some of the aforementioned point guards, he takes plays off sometimes and while he can be an ace on defense, too often he loses focus when defending off the ball, which leads to blown rotations and easy points for opponents. These are things that Bledsoe needs to address moving forward or he will continue to be regarded as a second-tier point guard.

Regarding his defense, Bledsoe is still one of the most tenacious on-ball defensive point guards in the league. When he is locked in and focused on stopping his man, he is an impact defensive player. But, as previously mentioned, Bledsoe has a bad habit of losing track of his man when he is off the ball, giving up back door layups and easy scoring opportunities. Bledsoe has always had a tendency to do this, but for some reason it has been worse this season than in past seasons.

Though ESPN’s Real Plus-Minus metric doesn’t perfectly encompass a player’s defensive impact, it is noteworthy that last season Bledsoe registered a 1.85 Defensive Real Plus-Minus rating, while this season, he is currently registering a -0.3 rating (though it should be noted that he is fourth among all point guards in RPM, ahead of players like Paul, Wall and Lillard). The sample size is very small for this season, so this rating should be received with some skepticism, but what is certain is that Bledsoe needs to hone in on off-the-ball defense as much as he does on one-on-one defense in order to impact the game at the level he is capable of defensively.

To his credit, Bledsoe is keeping his opponents to just below league average shooting percentages on the perimeter (with the exception of the corners) as we can see in his defensive shot chart provided by NBA Savant.

Eric Bledsoe Defensive Shot Chart 2015-16

But again, defending the ball and closing out on shooters isn’t the issue defensively for Bledsoe, but rather keeping focus even when guarding someone off the ball. But even with this in mind, Bledsoe is still one of the best defensive point guards in the league overall, he can switch seamlessly onto the biggest and best shooting guards and is a tough matchup for any opposing point guard to try and score on.

It is unfortunate that Bledsoe’s improved play has gone largely unnoticed as a result of Phoenix’s disappointing play so far this season. Bledsoe isn’t the best shooter, decision maker, finisher at the rim or overall floor general at the point guard position, but his combination of scoring, improved playmaking and pick-and-roll proficiency, in addition to his tight one-on-one defense, makes him one of the most impactful point guards in the league.

Jesse Blancarte is a Deputy Editor for Basketball Insiders. He is also an Attorney and a member of the Professional Basketball Writers Association.

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NBA Daily: Who’s On The Move Next?

While the bulk of the NBA offseason is likely done, here are some names to watch as potential movers ahead of training camps in two months.

Steve Kyler

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With NBA free agency all but closed, there are still a few names lingering waiting for deals, and a new batch of players to watch as the NBA season starts to take shape. Until training camps open in roughly 65 days, here are some of the situations we’ll be watching:

Bradley Beal

The Washington Wizards have finally wrapped up their summer-long search process for new leadership, landing on Tommy Sheppard as their new full-time general manager. After flirting publicly with Denver’s Tim Connelly, and privately with several other candidates, Sheppard won out. His first order of business is convincing Wizards’ All-Star Bradley Beal to stay on board long enough for them to build around him.

Sheppard has been very transparent that the team will offer Beal the maximum contract extension possible on July 26th — not only hoping he’ll sign it but also showing him their convictions to remold the next iteration of the team with the sharpshooter as the centerpiece.

Beal has two fully guaranteed years and some $55.7 million left on his current deal and is eligible to tack on three more years later this week.

While it is likely Beal will turn down what’s expected to be a three-year $111 million extension offer, the Wizards feel like the respect shown in making the offer at the earliest possible moment will illustrate to Beal how much the team values him.

Unfortunately for the Wizards, the way the NBA’s Collective Bargaining Agreement works, it is in Beal’s best financial interests to wait out next season as he can earn substantially more money if he picks up where he left off last season as an All-NBA level guard. Earning an All-NBA nod next season could trigger eligibility for a Supermax extension next summer that could push him towards a $167 million deal over five years.

Turning down the offer will open the trade rumor flood gates on Beal, and that’s not lost on the Wizards. Teams that have tried to engage Sheppard and company on Beal deals have been turned away abruptly, and Sheppard has already started telling people publicly and privately that even if Beal turns down the extension offer, the Wizards will be staying the course with Beal.

While time will tell how committed Beal really is to a rebuilding situation in Washington, for now, it seems that, with or without an extension, the Wizards plan to keep building around Beal.

That could change if he asks out, but even if he stays silent on the subject, that’s not going to stop the speculation train from picking up steam if he does as expected and passes on the extension offer.

Kevin Love

As teams started missing out on All-Star level free agents this summer, Cleveland Cavaliers’ forward Kevin Love’s name started to pop up in trade rumors. Most of the trade talk was speculation according to sources near the Cavaliers, who said there were never any real discussions on moving Love and his remaining four years and $120.4 million.

While interest in acquiring Love is lukewarm, to say the least, there is a belief that Love is obtainable from Cleveland, who have looked at moving most of their veteran players as they start to focus in on building around their youth.

Love, who will turn 31 in September, might be the most obtainable All-Star level guy in the NBA and does have a lot owed on his deal — but it is a contract that plateaus in value next season and then declines during the final year.

As of now, it seems unlikely that anything involving Love happens before training camp. Still, there is a sense in NBA circles that as the season progresses and the balance of power takes shape, Love could be a name on the move around the trade deadline; especially with so much perceived parity in both conferences after the most chaotic offseason the league has seen in years.

Kris Dunn

The Chicago Bulls were pretty active after Summer League wrapped trying to make deals to round out their roster. One name that continued to surface in trade talks was Bulls’ guard Kris Dunn. The belief in NBA circles is that the Bulls are looking to move on from Dunn and that the asking price is fairly low.

Dunn’s time in Chicago has been hot-and-cold, to say the least. He had a breakout redemption year after being traded to the Bulls as part of the Jimmy Butler trade in 2017 — but since then, Dunn has been up and down and has developed a spotty reputation inside the organization.

With the Bulls landing Coby White in the draft and having so much invested in Zach LaVine, the belief is the Bulls are seriously looking at moving on from Dunn.

In terms of easy-to-obtain guard options, Dunn seems like the most plausible starting level young guy, and it might not take much more than a protected draft pick to get it done if the asking price rumors are genuinely true.

Iman Shumpert

Rockets’ guard Iman Shumpert is still unsigned, although it seems he may stay in Houston on a one-year deal if something else doesn’t surface. The Rockets had approached Shumpert’s camp about his willingness to be included in a sign and trade deal before they obtained Russell Westbrook, and there is still talk that Shumpert could be used to bring in another high-level player.

The Collective Bargaining Agreement requires any sign and trade deal to be three years in length, but only the first season must be guaranteed. This means that the Rockets could leverage Shumpert’s Bird Rights to balloon up his first-year salary to add a significant piece to the roster.

Among the remaining unsigned free agents, Shumpert has logged the most minutes, played a solid role for the Rockets in the postseason and might be the best defender on the market.

While there isn’t much left in terms of free-agent dollars, there is still exception money out there, so the book isn’t closed yet on Shumpert’s options.

Chris Paul

When the Oklahoma City Thunder triggered the deal to swap Russell Westbrook for Rockets’ guard Chris Paul, it was assumed the Thunder would immediately flip Paul to another team and start their rebuild around the pieces that came back. The problem is that deal never materialized.

While there has been some criticism of the Thunders’ decision to move Westbrook for what might be the ugliest contract in the NBA. Sources close to the Thunder believed that keeping their word to Westbrook was worth it. When the multi-time All-Star signed his massive extension, one of the promises made by the organization was that if Westbrook were ever unhappy, the Thunder would work with him and his agents to find a suitable situation — something they felt they did with the Houston deal.

While Paul may not be the ideal player to re-build around, the Thunder entered into the deal knowing they could not offload enough of their veteran players to be bad enough to get into the top draft pick discussion, so they opted to add Paul and aim for a playoff spot.

While making the playoffs in the Western Conference might be a stretch, the Thunder have eyes on developing their young guys with Paul as a veteran mentor. There is also hope that Paul will play himself into being more desirable in trade, especially as the three remaining years and $124 million left on his deal ages away.

Basketball Insiders has been grading the offseason of every team in the NBA; if you have missed one check them out here:

New Orleans Pelicans, Dallas Mavericks, Washington Wizards, Atlanta Hawks, New York Knicks, Chicago Bulls, and Cleveland Cavaliers.

More Twitter: Make sure you are following all of our guys on Twitter to ensure you are getting the very latest from our team: @stevekylerNBA, @LangGreene, @EricPincus, @TommyBeer, @jblancartenba, @SpinDavies, @JamesB_NBA, @MattJohnNBA, @DrewMaresca, @JordanHicksNBA, and @Ben__Nadeau .

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Looking For A Few Great Voices!

From time to time we have open chairs at Basketball Insiders for writers looking to gain experience, grow their brand and to be part of an aggressive up-tempo content team.

Basketball Insiders

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Looking For A Few Great Voices!

From time to time we have open chairs at Basketball Insiders for writers looking to gain experience, grow their brand and to be part of an aggressive up-tempo content team.

We are considering adding up to four new voices in 2019, and what we are looking for is very specific.

Here are the criteria:
– A body of professional work that reflects an understanding of the NBA and basketball.
– Must live within 30 minutes of an NBA team other than in New York & LA; we are full in those markets.
– Must be willing to write two to three times per week on various topics as assigned.
– Must write in AP style and meet assigned deadlines.
– Be willing to appear in Podcasts and Video projects as needed and scheduled.
– Have a strong understanding of social media and its role in audience development.
– Be willing to work in a demanding virtual team environment.

Some things to know and consider:
– We are not hiring full-time people. If you are seeking a full-time gig, this is not that.
– This will be a low or non-compensation role initially. We need to understand your value and fit.
– We have a long track record of creating opportunities for those that excel in our program.
– This will be a lengthy interview and evaluation process. We take this very seriously, so should you.
– If you are not committed to being great, this is not the right situation for you.

If you are interested, please follow these specific instructions, Drop us an e-mail with:

Your Name:

The NBA Market You Live Near:

And Why We Should Consider You:

We do not need your resume, but a few links to work you have done under the above information would be helpful. E-mail that to openings2019@basketballinsiders.com

 

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NBA Daily: Grading The Offseason – New Orleans Pelicans

Spencer Davies recaps a busy summer for the New Orleans Pelicans that turned out to be a huge success going into their first year without Anthony Davis.

Spencer Davies

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With the NBA Summer League concluded and the brunt of free agency completed, the doldrums of the offseason are here. The FIBA World Cup, Drew League, BIG 3 and The Basketball Tournament and other events are currently taking over the scene until the association fires back up in late September.

Last week, Basketball Insiders started a “Grading The Offseason” series by breaking down six teams and the type of summer each has had. To kick off this next round of reviews, we’ll take a look at the brand new version of the New Orleans Pelicans.

Overview

Entering the year, the Pelicans had high hopes. While they did lose key contributors with Rajon Rondo and a rehabbing DeMarcus Cousins electing to sign elsewhere, the organization was able to bring in a motivated Julius Randle and Elfrid Payton to ease the roster hit. The core of Anthony Davis, Jrue Holiday, Nikola Mirotic and those two seemed to be a solid group on paper.

Of course, as the season progressed, that changed. Playing the up-and-down pace that Alvin Gentry loves, the Pelicans were getting it done on the offensive end. Davis had been putting up the ridiculous numbers as usual, while Holiday was scoring and dishing with the best of them. Randle fit like a glove with his new team and was a force on the inside, as well as an improved shooter on the outside. Mirotic stretched the floor and, before getting hurt, Payton looked as comfortable as ever.

Then, chaos ensued. Shortly after the new year, Davis made his intentions clear that he wanted out of New Orleans. As the team was hovering around the postseason hunt, the turmoil caused a noticeable distraction and an awkward predicament that left many with a sour taste in their mouths. Up to the trade deadline, the rumors ran rampant regarding Davis’ desire to land with LeBron James and the Los Angeles Lakers.

General manager Dell Demps refused to give in to those demands though, asking for the steepest of prices to even field a call from LA’s front office duo of Magic Johnson and Rob Pelinka. The Lakers offered a majority of the franchise’s young core and a package of picks in an attempt to entice Demps, but he didn’t budge. Pelicans owner Gayle Benson reportedly wanted nothing to do with moving Davis, and she got her wish … at least for the remainder of the season.

New Orleans did trade away Nikola Mirotic and in return received Stanley Johnson and Jason Smith in a three-team deal. Still, it wasn’t enough to bolster a middling, banged-up squad. One week following the deadline, Benson fired Demps and replaced him with Danny Ferry in the interim.

Sure enough, the playoffs became an afterthought quickly. Gentry began playing guys to get a glimpse at what they could bring to the table. On the positive side, Jahlil Okafor made the most of an opportunity, as did upstart rookies Kenrich Williams and Frank Jackson.

However, finishing with a 33-49 record and facing an imminent rebuild, the Pelicans had work to do to straighten out the organization’s direction—with or without Davis.

Offseason

New Orleans wasted no time in finding a mastermind to fix one of the most difficult situations in the league. Less than a week after the conclusion of the regular season, the franchise hired David Griffin as its new executive vice president of basketball operations.

Lady luck shined on the Bayou at the NBA Draft Lottery a short month after, as the Pelicans scored the No. 1 pick with only a six percent chance to do so. Griffin chose Trajan Langdon, a fast-rising front office assistant in the Brooklyn Nets system, as his general manager. Ahead of the NBA Draft, former WNBA legend Swin Cash joined the fray as vice president of basketball operations and team development.

It wasn’t long before Griffin and his team addressed the turmoil surrounding Davis. In mid-June, the Pelicans struck a blockbuster trade to send the disgruntled superstar to the Lakers as he had desired. In return, they received a king’s ransom as a part of a three-team agreement including the Washington Wizards.

After all of the re-routing was done, New Orleans had brought in Lonzo Ball, Josh Hart, Brandon Ingram and the fourth pick in the draft, plus a pair of future first-round draft picks and the ability to swap another first with the Lakers in 2023.

It would’ve been foolish to believe the Pelicans were done there. The week of the draft, Griffin struck a deal with the Atlanta Hawks to offload Solomon Hill’s large contract by using the No. 4 selection acquired in the Davis trade. The No. 8, No. 17 and No. 35 picks, along with a conditional 2019 first-rounder via Cleveland, were sent to NOLA in exchange.

At the end of it all, New Orleans wound up with three highly-touted rookies: Zion Williamson, Jaxson Hayes and Nickeil Alexander-Walker. The franchise also took intriguing 20-year-old Brazilian prospect Marcos “Didi” Louzada Silva in the second round as a draft-and-stash.

That was one portion of a busy summer. The other was making a couple of striking moves to add experience to the locker room. Longtime sharpshooter J.J. Redick quickly came to terms on a multi-year contract with the Pelicans during free agency moratorium. Darius Miller returned on a separate multi-year deal. Italian forward Nicolo Melli decided to make the journey over from Euroleague and signed with the team for two seasons in addition.

More recently, New Orleans decided to go after Derrick Favors and were successful in doing so with another trade with the Utah Jazz. All it took to get the job done was a pair of future second-rounders that the franchise had previously acquired from Golden State. Zylan Cheatham and Josh Gray were also inked to a couple of two-way contracts.

The theme of the Pelicans’ summer has been roster turnover. With a completely revamped and re-tooled group, Griffin did yeoman’s work regarding the task he had been assigned.

PLAYERS IN: Lonzo Ball, Josh Hart, Brandon Ingram, Nicolo Melli, Darius Miller, J.J. Redick, Derrick Favors, Zion Williamson, Jaxson Hayes, Nickeil Alexander-Walker, Didi Louzada (draft-and-stash), Zylan Cheatham (two-way), Josh Gray (two-way)

PLAYERS OUT: Anthony Davis, Julius Randle, Elfrid Payton, Solomon Hill, Cheick Diallo, Ian Clark, Stanley Johnson, Dairis Bertans, Christian Wood, Trevon Bluiett

What’s Next

A new era of Pelicans basketball is on tap next year. There is a palpable excitement within the franchise, as there should be. The phrase “fresh start” applies almost all around. Ball, Ingram and Hart haven’t been in the league for long, but they’ve seen enough floor time to be considered young and experienced. We’ve seen plenty of glimpses of how talented they are. Now, it’s time to see whether or not they can carry those past learnings and turn into leaders collectively.

As those three figure out how to mature in that respect, New Orleans will have the organization’s rock in charge—Jrue Holiday. Coming off what probably should have been an All-Star season, the veteran 29-year-old will be depended on as the new number one option. More importantly, he’ll be the top voice in the locker room to guide this up-and-coming contingent of youngsters. Far too long has Holiday’s consistency and improvement gone unnoticed, and you can bank on seeing a sensational year from him.

Holiday will have help from Redick and Favors, two guys with over a decade of experience in the NBA, in that leadership aspect. E’Twaun Moore is still around and an underrated contributor. They’ll have quite the cast of first-year talent as well, namely that guy Zion who everybody is frothing at the mouth to see play—and no, one short stint at summer league was not nearly enough.

Hayes and Alexander-Walker displayed instant chemistry in Las Vegas, and they could make up a significant piece of an exciting second unit. Granted, Hayes will likely be developed slowly behind Okafor and Favors, so we might not see too much of the promising big man in year one.

With the kind of roster this team has, it wouldn’t be surprising to see the Pelicans make an immediate return to the postseason. Yes, there’s a heck of a lot of competition in the Western Conference, but they’ve reset the temperature in that building. There is confidence that a weight has been lifted off their shoulders.

New Orleans is going to come out of the gate fast and furious, sticking to Gentry’s style of play. Living in transition and embracing ball movement, it’s going to be a blast to watch this particular group—a mixed bags with loads of potential, plus proven talent—mesh over the course of its first season without Davis.

As difficult as losing a franchise player is, this is by no means your typical rebuild.

It’s a reload.

Grade: B+

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