PHOENIX — “I’m in!!!”
After reading the two-word tweet from fellow teammate and six-time All-Star Chris Paul on July 1, Eric Bledsoe knew what that meant for his basketball future in Tinseltown.
He was out.
With the cyber writing literally on the wall, the 23-year-old guard understood that as a highly-coveted asset, playing in Paul’s shadows for another season with the Los Angeles Clippers simply wouldn’t have worked for either side.
However, while he sensed a trade was coming at some point during the summer, Bledsoe’s assumption that it’d be to a destination full of sunshine and high temperatures was only partially right.
“First off all, I didn’t know where I’d end up. I thought I was kind of going to Orlando. Then this opportunity came,” Bledsoe said of the three-team deal between the Suns, Clippers and Milwaukee Bucks that sent him and Caron Butler to Phoenix. “I’m excited to get things started. I’m ready to start playing.”
Bledsoe, who averaged 8.5 points, 3.1 assists and 3.0 rebounds in 2012-13, officially was introduced to the media at a press conference Thursday inside US Airways Center. But while he and an entire fan base are collectively excited to see what transpires in 2013-14, the million-dollar questions remain: In what role and with who by his side?
For a former first-round pick of his pedigree, Bledsoe (career average of 20.4 minutes per game) doesn’t exactly have a ton of miles on him — a trend that’s likely to change in Phoenix. Although on paper he’s being thrown into a situation with an incumbent point guard — the team’s 2012-13 leading scorer Goran Dragic — seemingly set in place, the theme being thrown around is one of a backcourt built on coexisting parts.
“I’m a basketball player,” said Bledsoe when asked what position he plays. “You put me at the five, I’m going to play that position the best way I can. Whatever Coach Hornacek decides, I’m going to play it the best way I can.”
Hornacek wasn’t asked at length about the prospect of playing Bledsoe and Dragic side-by-side at the press conference, but he talked about the potential pairing rather openly during a radio appearance this week on Arizona Sports 620′s Burns and Gambo.
“When you have Eric out there and you have Goran, you can throw it to either guy,” Hornacek said. “They’re both going to be able to just take the ball and go with it and I think all our guys, when you have two guys like that, it forces everyone else to run because they may never touch the ball if they don’t run. I think it gives us a great two-person weapon.”
While the new backcourt duo might not match up favorably just yet, Hornacek suggested that the Bledsoe-Dragic combination has a chance to resemble the five-year period when he and three-time All-Star Kevin Johnson patrolled the hardwood at the Memorial Coliseum as multi-faceted tandem.
“I kind of compare it to when Kevin and I played together back in the day, where you could throw it to either one,” said Hornacek. “We were able to fast break. Kevin could throw it up the court to me and then I could handle it or vice versa.
“I think they’ll work well together.”
Count Ryan McDonough, who Suns President of Basketball Operations Lon Babby referred to as the “facilitator” of the three-team trade, as another major proponent of the two logging plenty of minutes together.
In a league that has started to embrace position dissipation, the 33-year-old general manager doesn’t see two competing players in Bledsoe and Dragic, but rather two interchangeable components that can be utilized simultaneously on either end of the floor.
“I think they’ll play together great,” McDonough said. “One of the issues I saw last year was when Goran [Dragic] got doubled or teams took the ball out of his hands, the team struggled to make a play. With Eric [Bledsoe] and Caron [Butler] here, you now have to be careful with who you’re going to double. These guys can make plays off the dribble and also knock down shots.”
It might not be Orlando or an opportunity to lead a team exclusively at point guard, but Bledsoe has no more shadows hanging over him. In Phoenix, those prior glimpses of greatness have the chance to grow into something much greater.
It will certainly take time and a level of futility he’s not accustomed to, but Eric Bledsoe finally has the chance to be Eric Bledsoe — something that hasn’t been possible since his senior year at Parker High School in Birmingham, Ala.
“It’s definitely a plus for me,” said Bledsoe of coming to Phoenix. “Unfortunately I couldn’t play as much as I wanted to [in Los Angeles] because I was playing with an All-Star. Now, Ryan [McDonough] has full confidence in me and I have full confidence in myself to help Caron [Butler] make some big things happen here. It’s a blessing.”
While the Suns were admittedly excited to welcome Bledsoe and Butler into the fold Thursday, the name Jared Dudley was never far from the minds of the Suns brass.
Dudley, who was sent to the Clippers in the three-way deal with Phoenix and Milwaukee, played parts of five seasons with the Suns after being acquired in a trade from Charlotte on Dec. 18, 2008, and most notably anchored a second unit during the franchise’s run to the 2010 Western Conference Finals.
“Jared Dudley is such a favorite of all of us here in Phoenix and in the Suns organization,” President of Basketball Operations Lon Babby said. “He is a consummate professional and his professionalism never wavered throughout our period of transition. He takes with him to Los Angeles our gratitude and our very best wishes. On behalf of the Suns and I think our entire community, I thank him.”
Despite a tumultuous final season in the Valley that saw him go from starter to bench contributor to briefly out of the rotation, Dudley still managed to record double-digit scoring (10.9 points per game) to go along with 3.1 rebounds and 2.6 assists per game.