As we noted in the past, it’s possible Eric Bledsoe has already locked up the league’s Most Improved Player award. He’s been that good, that surprisingly good. We all knew he’d put up numbers in Phoenix for a team that was blatantly tanking (and yet now is somehow 7-7 after 14 games). But 20.4 points and 6.8 assists per game good? That’s big time.
Then there’s Ty Lawson, who quietly — seriously, is he the most nationally underrated player in the NBA? — has the Nuggets streaking at 7-6 while averaging 20.7 points and 8.7 assists per game. Just in his last fives games as Denver has picked up steam, Lawson exploded, dropping a ridiculous line of 21 and 10 at 53 percent shooting.
With Bledsoe expected to return to action tonight from a leg injury, we’re asking who’s better: Bledsoe or Lawson? We argue. You decide.
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Eric Bledsoe has a reason to be upset. During his lone college year at Kentucky, he was relegated to shooting guard while poster child John Wall played his position (Wall is 6-4; Bledsoe is 6-1, if that). After getting drafted 18th by the Oklahoma City Thunder, he was traded to Los Angeles and spent two years teetering between the D-League and the cellar of the Clippers bench. Meanwhile, his college contemporaries Wall and center DeMarcus Cousins were thriving as starters for their respective NBA teams.
However, Bledsoe never moped, working hard for his chance to become a potential starter and it’s come to fruition. In his nine games in Phoenix this season, he’s looked every bit the playmaking scorer we expected him to be and possesses the crucial intangibles to be an elite point guard. Yet fans and pundits alike still believe it’s an anomaly. Clearly, we’re dealing with a smaller sample size statistically with Bledsoe compared to Lawson. However, it’s impossible to ignore the immediate progressions he’s made in his game from last year. This rapid development is why I’m leaning towards Bledsoe as the better player.
Bledsoe doesn’t have the protypical size of an NBA guard. But he’s bigger physically than Lawson and standing at 6-1 and 195 pounds, he’s as strong and explosive as anyone in the league. His freakish athleticism and vertical leaping ability has made him a terror in the open court and a supreme finisher at (read: above) the rim. However, Bledsoe’s growth as a viable scorer in the half-court is the key to his breakout season thus far.
As a backup to Chris Paul last season, he played over 1,550 minutes but was never the primary option as high-volume shooting guru Jamal Crawford hoisted up the rock every chance he was given. And only 12 percent of the time were Paul and Bledsoe on the floor at once so it was Bledsoe’s duty to run the offense effectively. In Phoenix, he’s not only the co-captain but the main offensive weapon. Coach Jeff Hornacek is giving the guard free rein on the offensive end and his confidence has skyrocketed. Among point guards, Bledsoe is currently second in the NBA in PER with 23.66 (per Hollinger) and fourth in scoring.
To the naked eye, it seems as if Bledsoe took a few crafty secrets out of Paul’s notebook. First, Bledsoe is far more assertive this season, especially on pick and roll plays. In 2012, he would come off screens lazily and defer to Crawford and Willie Green – yeah, I know – on the perimeter instead of using his quickness to attack the trees in the paint. And when he did penetrate, it was far too premature leaving himself in no man’s land with nowhere to pass the rock. Now, instead of going full speed or not at all, Bledsoe’s using Paul’s trademark start and stop hesitation dribble in the paint to halt the defense and create enough separation to get a good look at the rim. Then Bledsoe will create the contact by jumping into contesting defenders, drawing the foul while still leaving the door open for a three-point play, which he often converts with the help of his 6-7 wingspan.
He’s also playing with more balance and a lower center of gravity that’s translating well into the rhythm of his jumper, which is far smoother than Lawson’s. Lawson has the subtle edge in three-point shooting but Bledsoe is the more efficient scorer, converting half of his buckets compared to Lawson’s 46 percent, and also makes 83 percent of his free throws. Both players are instinctual — their teams don’t necessarily need to run a play for them — but Bledsoe’s playmaking draws more eyes from defenders, opening up the floor for his teammates to succeed. His nearly seven assists per contest show that he’s doing more than just putting the orange in the tin and the Morris twins early success — as well as the Suns’ four-game losing streak after Bledsoe got hurt — is indicative of Bledsoe’s importance to his team.
For the record, Bledsoe’s success as a floor general isn’t much of a surprise nor is his scoring efficiency. Around this time last season – November 2012 – Bledsoe’s per/36 minute averages were 20 points, 5.5 assists and 5.0 rebounds on 50 percent shooting. These are All-Star caliber numbers similar to his 20-5-7 on 50 percent from the field this year. Putting those statistics in perspective, there are only two other players in the league right now with that stat line thus far: Lawson and LeBron James. So the signs for potential brilliance were there but the trust wasn’t, which explained why he played 20 minutes per game for the Clippers last season.
But what really makes Bledsoe superior is his intangibles and defense. He has a knack for anticipating passing lanes and running down blocks on the fast break that shouldn’t even be possible. There are only a handful of legitimate defensive pesters in the NBA and Bledsoe is one of them. In his short career, he’s blocked the likes of Dwyane Wade, J.R. Smith, Tony Allen, Anthony Davis and LeBron James – denials all provided on help defense and/or transition. His timing is impeccable and he’s undaunted by the posterization. And thanks to that wingspan, players can’t overdribble or he’ll pick their pocket with relative ease. He has great pace in transition, has a tendency of winning all the loose balls, deflections and steals, and his moxie is impenetrable. Even when his offense isn’t clicking, he can have an immense impact on the game’s outcome – something I can’t say about Lawson.
I’m sure many believe that Bledsoe’s early season success is an aberration and that’s okay. But what’s there to believe he won’t keep this torrid pace up? Sans his mediocre three-point shooting, there isn’t anything that he doesn’t do well. Blur on the fast break? Check. Pick and roll magician? Check. Elite finisher? Check. Defensive nuisance? Check. Despite his high turnover averages, he’s an underrated ballhandler and one who’s still trying to find stability to his game as a leader of an offense. Remember that in both his college and professional years, Bledsoe has never had the chance to showcase his talents because he played alongside other point guards who limited his full on-court capabilities. Now, the show is his and the Suns are flourishing. Lawson is great but what Bledsoe brings on both sides of the floor is far more dynamic. There’s just more possibilities for success when he’s on the court.
If Bledsoe continues at this pace, Phoenix will inevitably have to pay him a max contract at year’s end or he’s out the door – a frustrating conclusion considering they could’ve resolved the negotiations in a simpler, less expensive fashion in October. But they shouldn’t be upset: they have one of the brightest young guards in the NBA right now, and one I’d take over Lawson any day of the week.