With starting Los Angeles Clippers point guard and early-buzz MVP candidate Chris Paul out with a bruised right knee, the team didn’t have to reach too far into its bag of tricks to find a suitable proxy. This gave third year guard Eric Bledsoe the opportunity to shine in Paul’s absence.
On Monday night, in a budding rivalry with the Memphis Grizzlies, Bledsoe took the helm of the starting point guard position and tallied 14 points, four assists, two steals and a rejection with no turnovers. His performance capped off a 99-73 drubbing of the Grizzlies.
“He (Bledsoe) has a tough role backing up the best point guard in the NBA (Paul),” said Bledsoe’s teammate Matt Barnes. “His number was called tonight, he played great.”
Bledsoe followed up this performance Tuesday night with 19 points, five assists, seven rebounds and a pair of steals in a 117-109 win against the Houston Rockets.
“I thought Eric Bledsoe played well again for us,” said Clippers coach Vinny Del Negro. “He kind of controlled the tempo of the game for us, did a lot of good things.”
For Bledsoe, Paul’s injury presents an opportunity to hone his NBA point guard skills. At the University of Kentucky, he played the role of undersized two-guard more often than not next to John Wall, the Washington Wizards point man.
I recall interviewing Bledsoe in the Clippers’ locker room when he was a rookie during the 2010-11 season. Combined with his chiseled physique and quiet, brooding demeanor, it made you shudder to think of the consequences if he ever caught you saying something that made his head turn sideways—you definitely wouldn’t want to say his significant other tastes like Honey Nut Cheerios a la Kevin Garnett.
However, the Alabama native displayed his Southern hospitality by politely answering my questions on the intricacies of guarding the then Phoenix Suns guard Steve Nash. Bledsoe said something to the effect of Nash’s ability to change directions quickly despite his advanced age and decreased foot speed.
Bledsoe displayed an eagerness to learn and exhibited a firm grasp of the game that made me think he would definitely be a starting point guard in the future. If not with the Clippers, he would definitely be able to start elsewhere.
Enter the shortened 2011-12 Clippers season, which netted All-Star guards Chris Paul and Chauncey Billups. Combined with the retention of another All-Star guard Mo Williams and reliable backup Randy Foye, that bright future changed for Bledsoe—a 50 percent deduction in minutes yielded an almost 50 percent decrease in most of his 2011-12 season averages.
Nonetheless, Bledsoe managed to stay positive and accept his extended role of fortifying the Clippers bench. In addition to his jump-to-the-moon vertical despite his 6-foot-1 frame, Bledsoe was quickly earning a reputation for his ability to penetrate defenses on one side of the court and play ball-hawking defense on the other.
Currently, Bledsoe is averaging about nine points and almost three assists per game in 18.3 minutes—a vast improvement from last season’s averages of 3.3 points and 1.6 assists per game in just under 12 minutes.
It’s safe to say that with Paul listed as day-to-day, Bledsoe will be steadily improving his skills game by game. If Paul, a free agent at the conclusion of this season, exits Clipper nation, Bledsoe may get his chance to be a starting point guard on a more permanent basis.
It’s difficult to fathom “Lob City” without Paul, who is due almost $18 million this year. If the Clippers’ recent performances with Bledsoe starting were an indication of what life would be like without Paul, it might not be so bad.
Given the chincy past of Clippers owner Donald Sterling and the number of potential suitors that will drive up the market price for Paul’s services, starting Bledsoe rather than retaining Paul at a hefty price might be an option for Sterling. Of course, if Sterling has truly kicked his habit for thriftiness and is willing to splurge on keeping Paul at the right price, that’s an even better option.