It’s no secret in Clipperland that Eric Bledsoe is beginning to show the signs of a player “coming into his own.”
It started last year with his tenacious play during the Clippers’ grueling first-round matchup with the Memphis Grizzlies and furthered during their short 4-game series against the San Antonio Spurs.
What caught the attention of anybody who watched those games was his pestering defense and the subsequent high energy style of play that he brought with him.
His offensive game, though unrefined, helped galvanize the Clippers at times because of his innate ability to get to the rim.
He epitomized what a bench player should bring to a team: boundless energy and a contagious effort level.
All of this at the age of 22? There’s no way that Clippers fans weren’t going to be excited about watching the progression of this kid.
That’s why after being in attendance for tonight’s opener against the Memphis Grizzlies, I truly feel like the Clippers may have a, dare I say it, James Harden-esque scenario on their hands a few years down the road.
By “James Harden-esque scenario” I don’t mean to compare the two basketball-wise because they are completely different players. But in terms of how valuable James Harden grew to be for the Oklahoma City Thunder… I definitely see Eric Bledsoe being on a similar path of how important his play is to the team’s success.
Let’s go back a little ways to recap how Bledsoe got to where he is today.
After playing his high school ball at Parker High in Birmingham, Alabama, he was ranked as Rivals.com’s #3 point guard recruit in the 2009 class. He’d ultimately commit to play his college ball at Kentucky, where he’d be joined by fellow five-star recruits John Wall, DeMarcus Cousins and Daniel Orton.
Due to Wall (the nation’s #1 point guard and #1 overall recruit) playing at Kentucky as well, Bledsoe played a lot more 2-guard than usual. However, Bledsoe still turned in a solid freshman year for the Wildcats as he put up roughly 11 points, 3 rebounds and 3 assists per game.
Bledsoe, along with the aforementioned Wall, Cousins and Orton, would declare for the 2010 NBA Draft.
His draft stock may have taken a hit due to Wall being John Calipari’s primary point guard at UK, but with as much athleticism as anyone in his draft class, the Oklahoma City Thunder would select Bledsoe with the 18th pick in the draft.
However, the Los Angeles Clippers saw as much, if not more in him than the Thunder did and decided to swap a future conditional first round pick in exchange for Bledsoe.
Now starting up in his third season with the Clippers, the fans may just see why that trade was made on draft day in 2010.
Sometimes it’s hard to quantify a player’s value when he’s on the court; for some players, the +/- rating doesn’t accurately reflect how they change the game. You can’t put a numerical value on energy or momentum shifts, and that’s where Eric Bledsoe has begun to shine.
James Harden was the same way with the Thunder. In his second year with the team, he began to shine, especially in the second half of the season following the Jeff Green-to-Boston trade. Once it came playoff time, the NBA truly took notice of his game. Harden was an absolute sensation, for reasons beyond the Rick Ross beard he was rockin’.
The crowds (and his teammates, too in all fairness) were absolutely galvanized by his play. Big shots, high energy and ridiculous efficiency. He went from being a key bench player to team catalyst in what seemed like an instant.
His third season in the NBA was so successful that he wound up being named the NBA’s Sixth Man of the Year.
But with such an elevated level of play, that would only translate to an elevated level of pay once the time came… and… well, you know the rest by now.
I’m not saying that Eric Bledsoe will win the Sixth Man of the Year Award any time soon… but he has been seeming to impact the game positively for the Clippers on a remarkably consistent basis.
In 17 minutes of play during the Clippers’ opener, he wound up being their second-highest scorer on the night.
He poured in 13 points on 5-of-8 shooting, recorded 4 rebounds, 4 assists and a +/- rating of +9.
If this development continues, Eric Bledsoe will be one of the most sought after players once his rookie contract expires following the 2014-15 season.
The Clippers will have a big decision to make roughly a year from now when he will be eligible for an extension. With big contracts on the books already for Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan (and potentially Chris Paul if both sides work out a deal at season’s end), there may not be much room for Bledsoe on the payroll. Despite not being the best player on the team, like Harden, he may end up being the most important player on the team.
The Thunder know that story all too well. Harden was a clear difference-maker in Oklahoma City. His play off the bench meant there would be hardly any scoring drop-off, if any, when Scott Brooks elected to switch from his starters to his bench players.
Eric Bledsoe is beginning to adopt a Harden-like level of game-changing ability every time he takes the court. Not to the tune of a superstar by any means, but to where the average fan notices that he is a difference-maker when he’s on the court. His confidence is rising with each game and that is a scary thing for both the opponents and the Clippers.
Opponents may be beginning to recognize that Eric Bledsoe is a legitimate threat off the bench.
Conversely, the better he plays, the harder it will be to keep him once his time for a pay raise rolls around.
If his play continues to progress, will the Clippers be able to pay him and keep him around? Or will they follow the Thunder’s lead with how they handled their super-sub situation?
Only time will tell.
In the meantime, the Clippers and their fans have to be extremely excited about how good this young kid may turn out to be.
But when the time comes, the Clippers may have to phone up Sam Presti for some advice and ask him if he could do the James Harden trade all over again, whether or not he’d do things differently.