Eric Bledsoe is one of the most important parts of the best team in basketball, the Milwaukee Bucks. For the first time in his career, he’s where he wants to be.
Eric Bledsoe’s career has been defined by his butting up against the breach of his own development, improvement in the form of plexiglass terrifyingly close to snapping. The Suns stole him from the Clippers when he outgrew Lob City’s Bench Mob and then flipped him when their rebuild threatened to bury his career. His fit came into question with the Milwaukee Bucks during last year’s playoffs but Bledsoe has landed squarely into the disciplined, overwhelming Bucks freight train powered by Mike Budenholzer and Giannis Antetokounmpo.
“I Dont wanna be here”
The tweet that pushed the Suns into the darkest days of their rebuild. Phoenix is called the Valley of the Sun but sits in the shadows of the NBA these days. After 48 surprising wins in his first season in Phoenix, Bledsoe became a fringe All-Star candidate for the Suns. During the 2016-17 season, he averaged 23 points, 6.9 assists and 5.3 rebounds per 36 minutes on a 58.2 true shooting percentage. He dominated on both ends so consistently for the tanking Suns that he finally appeared ready to catapult to the upper tier of NBA playmakers. At age 28, he detonated late but the explosion of his arrival was loud and abrupt.
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Yet when the playoffs arrived last year, Bledsoe, with 70 games to acclimate to Milwaukee, the point guard fell off. He shot just 44 percent from the field, 32 percent from 3 and continued to struggle coughing up the ball, a deficiency that has followed him across the country during his career. He scored in single-digits three separate times during the Bucks’ seven-game loss to Boston in the first round. After winning the Bledsoe sweepstakes with a paltry trade package, suddenly the Bucks were entering an important year in their growth around Antetokounmpo with their point guard exposed and in a contract year.
The buzz around Bledsoe heading into the season was made up of several ingredients: contract-year resolve, philosophical buy-in and role clarity. It held up. Bledsoe has cut his usage rate by three percentage points, upped his assist rate and finally stopped hurting his team with erratic turnovers. Nearly half his shots come at the rim, where he is converting 72 percent, according to Cleaning the Glass, making Bledsoe one of the most efficient finishers in the league. The veteran’s Defensive Box Plus-Minus is his highest since 2015. Antetokounmpo is the team’s workhorse and a devastating matchup-wrecker but Bledsoe has settled in making plays in a secondary capacity and igniting transition opportunities.
When Bledsoe said he didn’t wanna be in Phoenix (he still stands by the idea the tweet was referencing the hair salon his wife dragged him to and that he was unaware then-Phoenix coach Earl Watson was fired when he fired off the post), the support system in Milwaukee has to be what he was imagining. His defense and playmaking, the two skills that make best use of his blinding athleticism, are at full power and the team around him complements his skills. Bledsoe isn’t fully any one thing — a point guard, a scorer, a stopper — but he chips in in precisely the right ways to help this Bucks team go.
Much of the growth in Milwaukee this year on the team level and within individual players can be chalked up to coaching. Budenholzer seems to earn buy-in from his players as quickly and fully as any coach. Bledsoe is the latest example. The guard recently told Stadium, “You can tell (Budenholzer) wants me to be at the elite level I can be and you can see that. For a coach to sit there and be on me like that, I want to make him proud.” Budenholzer is more successful than any coach Bledsoe had in Phoenix and the coach’s passion and attention to detail are paying off with his point guard.
This relationship is key because Bledsoe still is not quite a signature Budenholzer ringleader. He takes nearly a fifth of his shots from mid-range and is not effective there. The turnover problems crop up against great defenses (he recently had five in a close loss to the Warriors). And despite the pride Budenholzer and Bledsoe take in defense, the Bucks are slightly worse on that end when Bledsoe is on the floor.
With Bledsoe facing what could be his last shot at a long-term payday this summer and Milwaukee suddenly realistic contenders for an NBA championship in the near future, ironing out Bledsoe’s fit with Antetokounmpo and the Bucks is vital. He is in the right place but the high-wire act of maintaining a championship-caliber roster is scary and could leave him on the outside looking in should things end badly this year. Bledsoe’s ability to keep this two-way performance going will be one of the key indicators of the Bucks reaching their ceiling as a team. Both sides will be feeling out their relationship all year.
Bledsoe was also asked by Stadium what his personal goals were for this year and he responded simply, “Do better than we did last year.” It’s a tidy way to explain his progress year after year in the NBA. A little of this a little of that, always a role a little too small for what he’s capable of, Injuries often turning a few steps forward into one or two back. Now, he’s on stable footing and helping to lead the best team in basketball.