Enigma. Polarizing. Frustrating. These are all words that can be used to describe Eric Bledsoe’s play. Despite his up and down performances that often gets him dragged through the mud, the Milwaukee Bucks’ point guard plays an integral part of their championship hopes.
His past two playoff performances, in particular, are what drive people crazy. He played 71 games of the 2017-18 season with the Bucks following an early season trade from the Phoenix Suns. After his arrival, he averaged 17.8 points and 5.1 assists per game while posting a 58.5 percent true shooting percentage. Those numbers plummeted in the postseason to 13.6 points and 3.7 assists on just 51.2 percent true shooting. The same phenomenon happened again in 2019.
His playoff performances have been carved in stone, and no matter what he does in the regular season, it won’t change the past or the worries about the future. Still, he can begin to prepare mentally for what he knows is waiting come April, May and (hopefully) June. And the early returns on the 2019-20 season have been positive.
A game-changer defensively, head coach Mike Budenholzer finally helped the stocky point guard unlock his potential at that end of the floor. Bledsoe possesses elite lateral quickness, great strength and long arms to make life a living hell for opposing ball-handlers. In his first year in Budenholzer’s system, he earned a spot on the All-Defensive First Team.
Presenting himself as the first line of defense, he makes his man work extra hard on offense. Whether it be denying a dribble handoff, fighting through screens or funneling his man into one of the Bucks’ seemingly endless supply of elite rim-protectors, Bledsoe goes hard.
The play begins with Bledsoe, significantly above the three-point line, awaiting the dangerous Trae Young. Due to his positioning, and Young’s elite pull-up abilities, a ball screen gets set 35 or so feet away from the basket. This forces Brook Lopez to begin his drop pick-and-roll coverage almost even with the arc. As Lopez works to keep Young in front of him, Bledsoe is in hot pursuit and never gives up on the play. By the time Young tries to use his left hand for a crafty finish at the basket, Bledsoe is in a position to rise up and smack the layup off the glass.
The Bucks defense depends heavily on Bledsoe. They allow 5.2 fewer points per 100 possessions when he’s on the court according to Cleaning the Glass. That’s the third-best mark on the team behind Giannis Antetokounmpo and Donte DiVincenzo.
In a league flush with scoring guards, he’s often assigned very difficult matchups. And, more often than not, he’s been winning those clashes since the beginning of last season.
He’s also an underrated help-side defender. He understands where he’s supposed to be and gets there in a timely manner. This allows him to use his long arms to swat away shots. (P.S. All of Bledsoe’s blocks seem to be with emphasis, as they sail out of bounds or off the backboard more often than not.)
With a pick-and-roll going down on the other side of the court, he lurks in the paint waiting for the action to draw closer. By the time Blake Griffin hems and haws his way to the restricted area, Bledsoe strikes and swipes his floater out of bounds.
He’s forever erratic offensively. Earlier this season he scored 20 or more points in five straight games, followed by back to back contests with 10 or fewer, then dropped 28 and 30 in consecutive bouts before finishing the streak by scoring fewer than 14 points in nine straight games. That’s exhausting just to type.
Overall, his efficiency has crept down a bit this season. After posting a 58.5 percent true shooting percentage in 2017-18, it dropped to 57.7 last year and has slipped to 57.1 so far this season. It’s not an incremental change, but the downward trend is concerning.
That’s nothing compared to the fluctuation of his outside shooting. His three-point percentage has bounced between 32 and 37 percent since he started taking them with regularity in 2013-14.
His shot behind the arc plays the biggest mind games with him, as we saw in the postseason. When teams leave him wide open on the perimeter it messes with his head in a way that affects other parts of his game.
He’s beginning to remember the three-point line isn’t a staple of his game, rather a complimentary piece. Only 29.8 percent of his shots are coming from distance this season-his lowest rate since the 2015-16 season.
He’s at his best when attacking the hoop. His combination of strength and quickness overwhelms most point guards. As one of the league’s better attackers, he drives to the hoop 11.7 times per game-about the same as guys like Kemba Walker, Lou Williams and Ben Simmons.
When he gets to the basket, he’s a good finisher as well. His 53.6 percent field goal percentage on drives ranks as the 10th best among guards who drive at least eight times per game. It’s not just on dribble attacks either, as he’s a plain old good finisher around the hoop. According to Cleaning the Glass, he connects on 67 percent of all shots within four feet of the hoop-a number that ranks in the 93rd percentile among point guards this season.
He’s also setting up his teammates more than ever. He’s averaging a career-high 9.6 assists per 100 possessions and is assisting on 28.8 percent of his teammates buckets when he’s on the court-his highest as a member of the Bucks. He creates an additional 22.73 points per 100 possessions thanks to his ability to set up teammates-another career-high for him. For comparison, James Harden averages 22.61 assist points per 100 possessions.
Whether it be scoring or setting up his teammates, Bledsoe, and the Bucks, are at their best when he’s in attack mode. That’s his bread and butter.
He’s far from a perfect player. Everyone realizes that. However, he doesn’t need to be perfect for the Bucks to win a championship. Milwaukee is a deep and well-rounded team built to compensate for imperfect players, and nobody’s asking him to be Superman.
A saying I’m fond of goes a little like this: If something doesn’t work-do less of it. If something works-do more of it. The Bucks need to stick to their bread and butter and play inside out with Bledsoe providing some of the inside attack. If he can stay aggressive no matter what strategies and mind tricks defenses impose, the Bucks will have every opportunity to reach their full potential.
*All stats are accurate as of Saturday, January 3rd, 2020.