As the Milwaukee Bucks try to shake free from a tumultuously disappointing regular season, Eric Bledsoe is well-positioned to assert himself as so much more than a supplementary sidekick.
An improved outside shot sprinkled atop his usual aggression has quietly elevated the 28-year-old to a level we haven’t really seen—if post-All-Star-break All-Star teams were a thing, Bledsoe would make the cut—and if he can carry his play from the past six weeks into Milwaukee’s first-round matchup against a Boston Celtics team that won’t have Kyrie Irving, Marcus Smart, or any of 19 other players from their opening night rotation, well, all of a sudden the Bucks may find themselves barreling into the conference finals.
“No question I thought we should be a higher seed than we was,” Bledsoe tells me. “But due to everybody being hurt, me coming in being a new guy, it’s an adjustment, man. Everybody’s roles fluctuate and change in every game.”
Bledsoe has always possessed the talent, speed, and strength to verify himself as one of the more well-rounded point guards in a league that overflows with brilliance at the position. Now that he's in his prime, about to make his first playoff appearance in five years (and first as a starter), it’s almost startling how Bledsoe's individual growth has occurred in such a dysfunctional, undisciplined environment.
There’s a treasure chest full of metrics that support Bledsoe’s growing value, but the most notable is his net rating since the All-Star break when Giannis Antetokounmpo is off the floor. It's +11.5 in the 266 minutes when Giannis is on the bench and +0.9 when they’re both in the game. Milwaukee’s offense is napalm, and Bledsoe plays like a bowling ball dipped in oil.
His impact throughout the entire season is even more clear. The Bucks outscore opponents by 4.7 points per 100 possessions when he’s on the court and are outscored by 5.4 points per 100 possessions when he’s off. (The difference between those two numbers is actually one point more than what Giannis registered this season. That’s not nothing.)
Dogged, shifty, and powerful, nobody his size was more problematic around the basket this season. Bledsoe shot 67.4 percent at the rim, which placed him in the 96th percentile among point guards. The last two seasons he was at 59 and 56 percent. (The only three “guards” more accurate in the restricted area were LeBron James, Ben Simmons, and Gary Harris.)
Sometimes he’ll crash towards the cup with enough skittish energy to recreate The Departed’s cranberry juice scene, and sometimes he’ll victimize a backpedaling defender with a deft Eurostep. He can finish with both hands, through contact, and change speeds as well as anybody in basketball.
“I’ve just always been an attack guard, it has nothing to do with missing shots or bigger guys down there, I just always attack the rim to score.” he says. “There’s actually less spacing because everybody’s packing in on our team to make us shoot, but, like I said, I’ve always been an attack-first guard.”
For Bledsoe to have a career year at the rim on a team that ranked 25th in three-point rate and 22nd in three-point accuracy is kind of remarkable. Some of that number is skewed by his penchant to attack in the open floor—among all starters who appeared in at least 50 games, only Tony Snell, Trevor Ariza, and Kent Bazemore can attribute more of their points from turnovers—but that doesn’t entirely cover why he’s better.
One theory is Bledsoe’s sudden improvement as a shooter. These are his shooting splits in 25 games after the break: 51.4/40.0/81.7, averaging about 19 points, 4.5 rebounds, and six assists per game. On wide-open threes, he launched three a night and drilled 47.2 percent of them. Before the break, his accuracy on these shots was a whopping ten percent lower, and nearly 15 percent worse compared to last season.
“I’ve been practicing it all summer, I’ve been working on it, man,” Bledsoe tells me. “But when I first got here I guess the confidence wasn’t there with me shooting the ball. Me staying with it helped a lot.”
Instead of treating outside shots as a last resort whenever his man ducks deep under a screen—which, even though he’s not treated like Ricky Rubio, John Wall, or DeMar DeRozan, still happens—Bledsoe is finally comfortable enough to pull up with a jumper that's suddenly dependable. He's also not afraid to punish a defense that either isn't ready for him to shoot or welcomes it. That audaciousness is all sorts of terrifying for an opponent that's already stressed out about Giannis.
Bledsoe's assertiveness—his three-point rate this year was 11 percent higher than it was during the 2014-15 and 2015-16 seasons—allows him to kick down other doors, too, and forces big men to step higher up than they used to after a switch onto the perimeter. In a league where every inch matters, that’s everything. Take note of Paul Millsap’s feet at the beginning of this clip below.
Add it all together (we haven't even gone over his next-level pick-and-roll passing) and few guards have been more difficult to handle. Factor in his impact when Milwaukee doesn't have the ball and he's almost easily the team's second-best player.
Bledsoe's defense diverges from game-changing to possession-ruining several times in every quarter. He finished this season with the third-highest steal rate in the league and exhibited an unwavering on-ball physicality that's truly top shelf. He also gambled, fouled, and relied way too often on a recklessness that will annihilate Milwaukee in the playoffs if he keeps it up.
“This has probably been the first team that’s really told me go steal the ball,” he says. “That’s something I’m real good at, but at the same time I’ve got to learn that balance.”
It’s a Catch-22. The level of ferocity Bledsoe is able to reach without going over the edge (which he often does, anyway) requires an unsustainable amount of energy, particularly for someone who sets screens, rebounds, and is tasked with so many different responsibilities related to scoring and penetration when Milwaukee is on offense.
But when Bledsoe commits himself to preventing any progress, few defenders make you empathize with an opponent like he does. Watching him hound a ball-handler 40 feet from the paint can be borderline traumatic.
And even though he's only 6’1”, mismatches are few and far between. Here he is enveloping Tobias Harris, who's seven inches taller and petrified to do much with Bledsoe in his face.
The problems occur when he hovers on the weak side, angling to force a turnover. Far too often Bledsoe will get caught with a back screen or watch his man cut through unguarded for a layup.
But against the Celtics, a team without their top two playmakers that ranks 23rd in turnover rate since the All-Star break, Bledsoe's gambling could pay off in a way that turns the series in Milwaukee's favor (when he's on the floor with Antetokounmpo the Bucks have a top-10 defense this season).
Bledsoe can't play 48 minutes, though. Even if Malcolm Brogdon and/or Matthew Dellavedova are at full strength in the first round, up against an opponent that's been gutted by injuries, the Bucks won't be the same when Bledsoe isn't on the floor. "We’re so unpredictable," he says.
Expect him to play upwards of 40 minutes if the Bucks want to advance past Boston and deeper into a bracket that, for all intents and purposes, feels very much up for grabs.