NBA PM: Bledsoe Thriving, Ignoring Rumors
Two hours before Eric Bledsoe had the most productive game of his career, the 23-year-old point guard was breaking down game film with Chauncey Billups and taking advice from Chris Paul. Bledsoe is having a breakout season and he admits that his success is partially due to being in point guard heaven. There’s no better environment for an up-and-coming floor general than the Los Angeles Clippers’ locker room.
“Oh man, it’s a blessing,” Bledsoe said of playing with Paul and Billups. “Not only having them help me, but even just being in the same locker room with them. From watching them when I was growing up to now I’m on their team and learning from them, it’s a blessing. I’m learning from two of the best point guards to play the game.”
When the Clippers drafted Bledsoe with the No. 18 pick in the 2010 NBA Draft, he was viewed as an extremely raw prospect. He was incredibly athletic and had all of the tools to be great – length, speed and athleticism – but he had only played 37 games at Kentucky and often deferred to John Wall, DeMarcus Cousins and Patrick Patterson, who would all be lottery selections in 2010.
Now, Bledsoe is considered one of the league’s most productive reserves and seems destined for stardom. He fills the stat sheet on a nightly basis and he’s currently averaging 9.8 points, 3.2 assists, 3.2 rebounds and 1.7 steals in 21.9 minutes. In 12 games as a starter, Bledsoe has averaged 14.2 points, 5.3 assists, 4.8 rebounds, 2.5 steals and 1.3 blocks. He has the fifth-best efficiency rating among Western Conference point guards behind only Paul, Tony Parker, Russell Westbrook and Stephen Curry.
While he still needs to limit his turnovers and become more consistent, he has definitely shown glimpses of what the future may hold.
This limitless potential has rival executives drooling over Bledsoe. Plenty of teams have called and expressed interest in the 23-year-old point guard, but sources close to the situation say that the Clippers are hesitant to trade Bledsoe until Paul has signed a long-term contract with the team, which he can do this summer. Until then, Bledsoe will likely remain on the roster as insurance in case Paul decides to surprise everyone and sign elsewhere. The last thing the Clippers want to do is go from having two extremely talented point guards to none in a short span. Bledsoe has seen his name surface in trade rumors, but he’s ignoring all of that and focusing on things that he can control – such as his play.
“Right now, I’m focused on Miami,” Bledsoe said when asked about trade rumors. “We play Miami next and I’m thinking about Miami. I’m just worried about winning. Everything else is going to happen.”
There’s no question that Bledsoe has improved significantly this season and he’s much more comfortable on the court.
“[My game] has evolved a lot from my first two years, learning from Chris and Chauncey and just getting a feel for the game,” Bledsoe said. “It’s really evolved a lot. I’ve gotten better at changing speeds and I have more poise. Ever since my first year, my coaches and everyone I worked with would tell me that my second gear is faster than most people’s first gear. That’s what I’m trying to use. That’s the biggest thing I’m working on right now.”
Paul and Billups have helped Bledsoe progress on and off the court, as a player and as a leader.
Bledsoe spent time with Paul last offseason, training and working the latter’s youth basketball camp. Paul offers plenty of tips and words of encouragement to his young back-up. Bledsoe knows there’s no better learning experience than playing against Paul, arguably the best point guard in the league, every day in practice.
Billups has taken Bledsoe under his wing and the two players break down film before nearly every game. Billups insists that he doesn’t want to pursue a coaching career once he’s done playing, but many – including Bledsoe – believe would make an excellent coach. Billups has coached prospects during the pre-draft process at Impact Basketball in Las Vegas and now he’s helping Bledsoe take his game to another level and realize his full potential.
Bledsoe credits Paul, Billups and Vinny Del Negro for his recent success.
“I’m learning,” Bledsoe said. “Even when I’m playing, I’m learning. Coach V is always telling me to be aggressive. Chauncey tells me when to slow down. Chris tells me to just play my game. And all three of them always tell me to just have fun. That’s probably a big reason [for the breakout season], having them in my ear.”
Not only are Paul and Billups two of the league’s best point guards, they’re also two of the NBA’s best leaders. Bledsoe knows this and he’s noticed that he copies some of their mannerisms and has a similar leadership when he’s on the court.
“They’ve kind of rubbed off on me,” Bledsoe said with a laugh. “When you hang around someone for so long or do something a lot, you start getting adapted to it. That’s what happened.”
Before dropping a career-high 27 points in a win over the Orlando Magic on Wednesday, Bledsoe and Billups were hunched over an iPad to watch film. Billups pointed out some of Bledsoe’s reoccurring mistakes and offered some adjustments. Soon, Bledsoe was pointing out the same mistakes that Billups had noticed and shaking his head, embarrassed that he didn’t pick up on them on his own.
“We do that all the time, all the time,” Bledsoe said of watching film with Billups. “He helps me a lot, especially correcting my turnovers and my defense. He’s always telling me when I’m playing nonchalant and need to pick it up. He tells me how I need to push the ball and be aggressive. Everything. He’s always trying to help me in different areas.”
“He’s picking up on a lot of nuances, spending so much time with [Clippers assistant coach] Robert Pack, watching film, breaking down game situations,” Billups said of Bledsoe. “I spend some time with him, talking about the game, about what I see out there and about what he can do out there. And, of course, he’s watching Chris and going over things with Chris. He’s in a very unique situation. To have a guy like Chris that you’re playing behind and having me here to help him out, oh man. He takes advantage of it.
“He’s very coachable. He listens to everything and, more important than anything else, he wants to be great. He wants to be great. I don’t ever foresee any kind of coaching problems for him.”
This season, particularly over the last few weeks, Bledsoe has shown that he’s a starting-caliber point guard and capable of putting up big numbers when given an opportunity. Take the game against the Magic, for example. Not only did Bledsoe have 27 points, he also contributed six rebounds, three assists, six steals and three blocks.
“Eric has done a good job for us,” Del Negro said. “We knew how gifted he was physically and now he’s learned how to run the team a little bit better. He has controlled his turnovers and gotten us in our sets. He causes a lot of havoc defensively and has great instincts in terms of getting steals and getting us in the open court. We have to create some offense from our defense, and throughout the year he’s done a good job of that.”
Opposing coaches have also been extremely impressed with Bledsoe’s evolution. Boston Celtics head coach Doc Rivers praised Bledsoe’s ability to pressure ball handlers and create havoc in the backcourt as well as in the passing lanes.
“It is rare,” Rivers said of Bledsoe, whom he compares to Avery Bradley. “There aren’t a lot of guys who can [pressure ball handlers like that]. In fact, we can name them and I don’t think I could get to five, really. I think Bledsoe does it pretty well. What makes both of those guys special is that they do it every night. It’s hard to do it every night, all game. It really is, just from an energy standpoint and a will standpoint. You see bigs in the backcourt trying to pick them the entire game and that’s good for [a team] because it means two guys are back and out of position, and it makes it slower for them to start their offense.”
The future certainly seems bright for Bledsoe. After working with him individually for two years, Billups believes the sky is the limit for Bledsoe. Once he has some more experience and learns to play with more control, Billups believes he can become a star in this league.
“I think he’s absolutely going to make the leap,” Billups said of Bledsoe. “When? We’ll have to see, but he’s come a long way in a couple of years. If he can keep progressing at this pace, it’s going to be a lot of sooner than later. And I’ll tell you one thing, when he does get there? Watch out.”
Howard Fires Back at Bryant
Even when the Los Angeles Lakers are winning, they can’t seem to avoid drama.
Dwight Howard isn’t the type of person who responds when he has been called out publicly, especially when it relates to his toughness or desire to win. However, that didn’t stop Kobe Bryant from calling out Howard, saying that he needs to play through pain and understand how the Lakers approach things.
Here are Bryant’s comments about Howard, according to ESPNBoston.com:
“We don’t have time for [Howard's shoulder] to heal. We need some urgency.
“[Howard] has never been in a position where someone is driving him as hard as I am, as hard as this organization is. It’s win a championship or everything is a complete failure. That’s just how (the Lakers) do it. And that’s foreign to him.
“When you think about it, there aren’t many organizations that look at it that way. There are only two that can really honestly say that’s what they live by — Los Angeles and Boston.
“We don’t have three years. We’ve got this year.
“Dwight worries too much about what people think. I told him, ‘You can’t worry about that. It’s holding you back.’ He says, ‘OK, OK, OK,’ but it’s always hovering around him. He just wants people to like him. He doesn’t want to let anyone down, and that gets him away from what he should be doing.”
Howard was clearly frustrated when addressing the media today. At first, he didn’t want to discuss the situation and snapped at a reporter. “Have I talked to Kobe?” Howard asked. “Why do I have to explain that to Kobe? He’s a doctor?”
Eventually, Howard responded to Bryant. Here’s what he had to say, according to ESPNLosAngeles.com:
“That’s his opinion. That’s it. He’s not a doctor, I’m not a doctor.
“I want to play. I mean, why wouldn’t I want to play? But at the same time, this is my career, this is my future, this is my life. I can’t leave that up to anybody else because nobody else is going to take care of me. So, if people are pissed off that I don’t play or if I do play, whatever it may be, so what? This is my career. If I go down, then what? Everybody’s life is going to go on. I don’t want to have another summer where I’m rehabbing and trying to get healthy again. I want to come back and have another great year. That’s what I want to do.
“Last year I wanted to prove and show people that I can play through injuries, but the back is something serious and I don’t want that to happen again.”
Hickson Excited for Free Agency
J.J. Hickson was hoping to get a big payday last offseason, but teams weren’t ready to make a long-term commitment to the 24-year-old. He had been waived by the Sacramento Kings last March and while he experienced some success with the Portland Trail Blazers, it was a small sample size. Instead of inking a huge contract, Hickson re-signed with the Trail Blazers on a one-year deal. He was determined to duplicate his success and show teams that his 19-game run wasn’t a fluke.
This season, Hickson has done exactly that. The 6’9 big man has been playing out of position, starting at center alongside LaMarcus Aldridge, but that hasn’t slowed him down. He’s averaging 12.9 points and 10.7 rebounds while shooting 55.9 percent from the field. He has the highest efficiency rating on the Blazers and the seventh-highest rating among Western Conference big men.
While teams weren’t expressing the interest that Hickson had hoped for last summer, there’s no question that he’ll be receiving quite a few phone calls this time around on July 1.
“I’d be lying if I wasn’t looking forward to it, but that’s something I’ll get more excited about when that period hits,” Hickson told NBA.com. “It’s something that me and my agent will talk about, but right now I’m just worried about playing basketball and trying to make these playoffs.”
While Hickson has thrived as Portland’s center, don’t expect him to continue playing the five. Blazers head coach Terry Stotts has used at the five this season because it gives Portland the best chance to compete, but Hickson admits that he doesn’t see himself playing center on a daily basis going forward.
“Nah, but you know, it’s what my team needs me to do and it’s what my teammates and coaches have asked me to do, so it’s something I’m willing to sacrifice for the team,” Hickson said. “I’ve just been strong mentally, I think, all season. I’m a physical player so that’s not a problem, but mentally I think I’ve been locked in and I’ve just been consistent with my play.”
Portland is enjoying Hickson’s contributions. As for his increasing free agency stock?
“Well,” Stotts said, “we’ll worry about that later.”