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Eric Bledsoe: Rising Sun

via flickr | S J Pinkney

via flickr | S J Pinkney

Teams negotiating contract extensions with players facing restricted free agency in the coming summer are working from a position of strength. With the right to match any offer their restricted free agent receives after the season, organizations hold a ubiquitous power over young players throughout such discourse.

In a vacuum, teams assessing whether or not to award a non-maximum extension before the early-season deadline should ask themselves a simple question: Is there a chance this prospective deal comes in below a player’s market value this summer? If not, there’s just no blanket justification for granting these often-lucrative contracts. Outperform expectations? Franchises will gladly pay the inflated price. Underwhelm? That omnipresent power in free agency remains.

This was no doubt the Phoenix Suns thinking in allowing the Halloween deadline to come and go without extending Eric Bledsoe. The 23 year-old is one of basketball’s brightest point guard prospects, but that’s just the issue – before this season began, Bledsoe was far more potential than player. He flashed near-brilliance as Chris Paul’s understudy for the Clippers his first three years in the league, but the sample size was small enough – Bledsoe’s career-high 22.7 minutes per game came in 2010-2011, his rookie year – for Phoenix to be leery of a rich longterm commitment without better understanding his impact first-hand.

And despite the Suns’ full-blown rebuilding effort marked by hordes of future cap space, that conservatism made sense. A financial albatross is debilitating under any circumstances, and though Bledsoe’s reported desired salary of at least $10 million per year wasn’t crazy-expensive should he reach even modest expectations, patience is still prudent. Starting from the ground up is a task best undertaken without restrictions; by slow-playing Bledsoe’s new contract, Phoenix ensured it would move forward without any whatsoever.

“Any extensions less than the max can be a little bit tricky, but we knew that going into it,” Suns general manager Ryan McDonough told Burns and Gambo of Arizona Sports 620 on November 6th. “We’re very confident that Eric’s going to be a Sun for a long time.”

The timing of McDonough’s remarks confirm their validity and speak to potential terms of Bledsoe’s extension this summer. Phoenix sits at a surprising 5-2 nearly two weeks into the regular season, and its dynamo point guard is the driving force behind that start. Averaging 20.9 points, 4.4 rebounds, 7.3 assists, and 2.0 steals per game while shooting over 50% from the field and registering a 24.75 PER, Bledsoe not only looks like the Suns point guard of the future, but the likely recipient of a richer contract than anyone anticipated, too.

On a macro-level, Bledsoe’s success as a full-time starter doesn’t shock. He performed admirably when tasked with filling in for Paul as a Clipper, and a much heavier offensive burden with Phoenix meant he’d always put up solid numbers this season. His identity as “mini-LeBron” fit in perfectly with new head coach Jeff Hornacek’s desire to push the tempo and play in space, too.

Bledsoe has been a terror in transition his entire career; few players in the league can match his combination of speed, strength, and finishing ability. Sequences like those below weren’t infrequent during his time as a Clipper, but Bledsoe’s new role as primary ballhandler affords him playmaking latitude with Phoenix he just never had in Los Angeles.

But again, this isn’t surprising. When trading for Bledsoe last summer, McDonough and company knew they were getting an offensive player that thrived in the open court first and foremost. Often overlooked about Bledsoe’s progress over the past few years, though, was his development as a pick-and-roll scorer. That improvement’s been obvious with the Suns, as a staple of Hornacek’s offense are simple high ball-screens for his point guard – to initiate sets or as a last-gasp option with the shot-clock winding down.

The highlights are impressive, but statistics tell the story better. Bledsoe has taken 35 shots within 8-feet of the basket this season and made 24 of them, ranking 12th among guards in attempts from that distance and second in accuracy with a blistering rate of 68.6%.

It’d be disappointing if Bledsoe weren’t exhibiting these strengths so far this season, and the same can be said of his influence on the other side of the ball. Bledsoe’s natural gifts make him one of the league’s best perimeter defenders, and though his steal rate is down to 2.7% in Phoenix from 3.6% with the Clippers, his overall defensive effectiveness remains. He’s prone to losing his man on the weak-side in help position and could stand to make a more consistent effort navigating through screens, but Bledsoe is among a small handful of true disruptors – on the ball and in passing lanes. There’s a recent history of young players putting defense on the back-burner when charged with a bigger offensive role; that’s clearly not the case here.

So Bledsoe’s been the player the Suns thought he’d be at minimum: a fast-break blur, elite finisher, pick-and-roll fulcrum, and defensive menace. And if that’s all he were this season, Phoenix would still be in good shape at point guard going forward. After all, how many NBA players – with room to grow, mind you – are capable of a sequence like this one?

But Bledsoe has been much more than that for the Suns during their hot start. Looking below raw individual or team-wide per game numbers, his all-encompassing influence is even more obvious.

Phoenix ranks 14th in points per possession at an even 100.0. This is a group that lacks talent befitting even a league-average offense, and Hornacek has constructed his team’s offensive style to make up for that deficiency. So-called David strategies are all the rage in football, and the Suns have implemented one of their own on the hardwood this season: they lead the NBA by a wide margin in percentage of points scored via fast break (24.1%; second-place Philadelphia is at 19.5%), and rank among the top three teams in corner three-pointer percentage, makes, and attempts.

As we all know, baskets are most easily scored in transition and corner three-pointers carry more expected value than any shot in basketball. To manufacture just a middling offense, Phoenix has emphasized efficiency as much or more than any team in the NBA. But that approach only works with a certain kind of player controlling the game.

The pace of this style, obviously, was never going to bother Bledsoe. In doubt was whether he had the vision, patience, and general savvy to run such a system effectively. Seven games into the 2013-2014 season, that’s no longer a question.

Bledsoe’s approach on the fast-break is absolutely textbook. He makes a concerted effort to stall at the top of the key, drawing defenders toward him and allowing trailing teammates to come open for easy jumpers. This is exactly the type of instinct some doubted Bledsoe would ever develop; that it’s come so soon into his time as a full-time starter at point guard is a sign of more great things to come. And of course, Bledsoe’s athletic dynamism is of utmost importance here, too. He commonly creates transition chances seemingly from nowhere, pulling down a defensive rebound or taking a quick outlet pass and flying down the floor with the ball. Combined with his newfound playmaking knack, it’s a deadly amalgam.

But fast-breaks only come so often. Bledsoe’s growth extends to the halfcourt, too, where he’s shown the ability to consistently find shooters in the weak-side corner. That’s a skill limited to just certain types of ballhandlers, and though Bledsoe certainly has the physical makeup, there were concerns coming into the season that he’d never develop the mental acuity to make such plays. But he’s completely quelled them at this point in the season, frequently exhibiting pace control and manipulation of the defense that belies his experience level.

Just how good has Bledsoe been as a passer in 2013-2014? Though he ranks 10th in assists per game at 7.5, only John Wall’s dimes are more valuable. According to NBA.com’s player tracking data, Phoenix averages 2.44 points per Bledsoe assist, the second best mark in the league among the top 20 players in assists per game. The numbers behind the numbers support the eye-test, basically, and it all points to Bledsoe being one of basketball’s best playmakers.

All of this is advanced point guard stuff, and speaks glowingly of Bledsoe’s natural talent level as athlete and basketball player. Did he flash these skills for the Clippers? In college at Kentucky? We’ve never had the chance to tell for sure – he’s always played with point guards (Paul and Wall) whose presence limits that of his own. But that’s not the case anymore, and Bledsoe’s full breadth of talent is finally on display in Phoenix. The Suns, obviously, are taking advantage.

Simple logic suggests that Phoenix will come back to earth a bit as the season wears on, and Bledsoe is likely to regress as well should that be the case. But he’s shown enough through these first two weeks to affirm his standing as a franchise building block, and perhaps generate max-level contract talk in restricted free agency this summer. And though the Suns could have had him for much cheaper if they extended him before Halloween, they surely won’t mind paying Bledsoe what he’s worth; the best players are expensive for a reason.

*Statistical support for this post provided by nba.com/stats. H/T: Hardwood Paroxysm’s Andrew Lynch for insight.

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Jack Winter