Carmelo Anthony will reportedly opt out of the final year of his contract and become an unrestricted free agent this offseason. ‘Melo is one of the elite players in the game, and his free agency situation has, and will continue to get a lot of attention from the media and NBA fans. However, there are several other talented players that will be free agents this offseason as well. The best of that group is Phoenix Suns point guard Eric Bledsoe.
Bledsoe was traded to the Phoenix Suns last offseason after three seasons with the Los Angeles Clippers. This season he contributed 17.7 points, 5.5 assists, 4.7 rebounds, shot 47.7 percent from the field, 35.7 percent from beyond-the-arc, and got to the free throw line 5.5 times a games, converting 77.2 percent, along with 1.6 steals and 3.3 turnovers per game. Phoenix Suns head coach Jeff Hornacek played Bledsoe alongside Goran Dragic in an untraditional two point guard backcourt.
The Suns were able to play two point guards together because of some of Bledsoe’s unique abilities. To start, Bledsoe is freakishly athletic. In 2012, Jamal Crawford joined the Los Angeles Clippers and soon thereafter nicknamed Bledsoe “Mini-LeBron.” While the nickname has faded over time, it’s not hard to understand why it came up in the first place. Bledsoe is one of the fastest players in the league, and can jump through the roof. Throughout his short career he has made plays that remind us of LeBron, like his extraordinary ability to block shots in transition, despite being a 6’1 point guard.
While it’s fun to watch highlights of Bledsoe blocking shots, it is his on-ball defense that makes him truly special. In a league that is saturated with talented point guards, teams need perimeter defenders who can try and slow them down. There may not be a better defensive point guard in the league than Bledsoe. If the Suns are facing a team with a point guard as quick and clever as Tony Parker or Chris Paul, Bledsoe can give them trouble. If the Suns are facing a team with a point guard as strong and physically explosive as Russell Westbrook or John Wall, Bledsoe can match them athletically. And if the Suns are facing a team with sharpshooting points guards like Stephen Curry or Damian Lillard, Bledsoe is strong enough to fight through screens and fast enough to chase them off the three-point line. No one in the league can shut down all of these point guards every night, including other great perimeter defenders like Avery Bradley or Tony Allen. But the ability to slow doing opposing point guards and force them into bad shooting nights is quite valuable.
Bledsoe’s defensive ability goes beyond slowing down points guards. He is strong enough, and athletic enough to guard many shooting guards as well. At just 6’1, Bledsoe appears too small to guard someone as big as Joe Johnson, or James Harden, however, he has long arms and knows how to use his speed and strength to stay in front of bigger guards and prevent them from getting to their favorite spots on the court. This is especially important for the Phoenix Suns, who prefer to play Dragic alongside Bledsoe. Dragic is quick, but lacks the strength to guard shooting guards. This task is generally left to Bledsoe, which allows the dual point guards to take turns running the offense, pushing the ball in transition and creating mismatches against opposing teams.
While Bledsoe’s defense is what makes him unique, he is no slouch on offense either. Entering the league, Bledsoe’s jump shot was inconsistent at best. However, his shooting has improved substantially over his short career. This is especially true about his three-point shooting, which has gone from 27.6 percent in his rookie season, to a very respectable 35.7 percent this season. His shooting mechanics are not perfect (he barely gets off the floor on jump-shots), but he has made small tweaks that have worked for him.
In addition to an inconsistent jump-shot, Bledsoe’s ability to run an offense was questioned entering the league. Fortunately for Bledsoe, he was mentored by Chris Paul and Chauncey Billups for a few seasons with the Los Angeles Clippers, and now shows an increased understanding of how to play the point guard position. He is now more patient with the ball, and knows how to effectively use a screen to create space for a pull-up jumper, drive to the rim, or a crisp pass to a rolling big man. He also knows how to play off the ball when Dragic runs the offense, a natural place for him after playing alongside John Wall at Kentucky and with Chris Paul and Chauncey Billups in Los Angeles. Bledsoe sometimes still struggles to stay within himself, often attempting to make a spectacular play as opposed to the simple one, which is reflected in his 3.3 turnovers per game average. Bledsoe will need to address this, but in an up-tempo offense, it is understandable and in part, unavoidable.
In a league littered with talented point guards, Bledsoe’s name often falls under the radar. However, when compared to Chris Paul, the best in the Association, Bledsoe statistically compares quite well. He almost scores as much, gets more rebounds, and shoots roughly the same percentage from the field overall and from beyond-the-arc. He does not get as many assists as Paul, but no one else really does either and Bledsoe plays next to another point guard. Bledsoe also steals the ball less and turns it over more. Though he may never be the game manager that Paul is, he is a natural fit to lead the up-tempo offenses that are now prevalent throughout the league.
Bledsoe is just 24 years old but has already proven himself to be an elite perimeter defender, and a developing floor general. He is one of, if not the most athletic point guards in the league, and has plenty of room to get better. While his free agency situation may fly under the radar this offseason, make no mistake, he is the best free agent available outside of ‘Melo.
At 24 year old who is an elite perimeter defender, has a developing ability to run a team and has ridiculous athleticism, Bledsoe is a top point guard in the NBA and the best free agent available outside of ‘Melo.
– Jesse Blancarte