The ball busting of Eric Bledsoe started well before the Bucks took the Staples Center floor Friday. When you sign an extension for four years and $70 million hours before tip off, your teammates are going to give it you.
Like Khris Middleton, the Bucks’ All-Star forward, who pleaded with Bledsoe to bring the same energy he has all season when you couldn’t fault the guy for lapsing into celebratory mode.
“Khris kind of begged me to come play,” Bledsoe said. “He got on one knee. He was like, ‘Eric, please.’”
Bledsoe did, for sure, showing why he’s worth the investment Milwaukee made in the point guard playing for his third team in nine seasons. Finishing with a game high (and season high) 31 points and playing dogged defense down the stretch, Bledsoe led the Bucks to the 131-120 victory over the desperate Lakers that was closer and harder than the final score indicated. It was a showcase game for the product out of Kentucky who has become one of the most underrated superstar sidekicks in in the NBA.
“He’s super important. Offensively, a lot of nights, he leads us. Defensively, he’s the guy that leads us. Night in and night out, he proves what he means to this team.” — MALCOLM BROGDON ON ERIC BLEDSOE
Among a team that features Giannis Antetokounmpo, the Bucks’ MVP candidate and certified alpha dog, and a number of talented but similarly unheralded players that make Milwaukee owners of the league’s best record, Bledsoe’s skill sets go largely underappreciated by casual observers who don’t see much of Milwaukee. Without an All-Star nod or another noteworthy accolade, his credentials pale in comparison to those of teammates like Malcolm Brogdon or Middleton. But without him, the Bucks would not have been the first team to clinch a playoff spot, like they did Friday, or be rolling toward the East’s No. 1 seed.
“He’s super important,” Brogdon said. “Offensively, a lot of nights, he leads us. Defensively, he’s the guy that leads us. Night in and night out, he proves what he means to this team.”
That's saying something since coach Mike Budenholzer made a case pre-game that Antetokounmpo isn’t just the MVP but also legit Defensive Player of the Year candidate. Bledsoe’s 3.7 defensive box plus/minus is second on the team (among those playing major minutes), behind Antetokounmpo; he’s third in defensive win shares (behind Antetokounmpo and Brook Lopez); and top 10 among point guards in ESPN’s defensive real plus/minus metric.
“He’s not a guy that gets caught up in the hooray of the attention,” Brogdon said. “He shows up in big games.”
His overall offensive numbers were more impressive during his four and half seasons with the woeful Suns, when he averaged over 18 points a game. Of course, for those horrendous squads he had to carry a larger load before the losing wore on him. Bledsoe was jettisoned out of town early in the 2017-18 season, when me made it known he wanted out. The Suns found a taker in the Bucks. Playing next to the Greek Freak, Bledsoe has put together his two best shooting seasons of his career, upped his efficiency while seeing his usage decrease, and endeared himself to his teammates in ways he hasn’t since playing with John Wall and DeMarcus Cousins in college.
Middleton, who earned an All-Star nod last month, and Brogdon, a former Rookie of the Year, both average more points per game than Bledsoe and often receive more attention. But the point guard has the second-highest VORP (value over replacement player) and offensive box plus/minus on the Bucks behind Antetokounmpo.
“He’s great to come to work with every day,” Budenholzer said. “Until you’re around somebody every day, you don’t know. I love his smile; I love his spirit. He wants to get better. I think he’s just enjoying our process. Some guys just aren’t that way or don’t express it or feel the way Bled does. Just building that relationship and coming close to him has been special.”
Bledsoe gives the first-year Bucks coach a lot of credit for elevating his game. Budenholzer admits he pushes Bledsoe and that the player listens, since Budenholzer coached one of his favorite point guards—Tony Parker—during his days as a Spurs assistant under Gregg Popovich. Budenholzer’s lessons have stuck, with Bledsoe enjoying career highs in offensive rating per 100 possessions (116) and a career low in turnover percentage (13.3 per 100 plays).
The Bucks and their fans have noticed. NBA followers hopefully did Friday when the announcement of his extension came down. He was handsomely paid for his production, and in the final year of a five-year deal he signed with Phoenix back in 2014, the 28-year-old Bledsoe now has the security of knowing Milwaukee wants to pair him with Antetokounmpo (who is a free agent after the 2020-21 season) for at least another two seasons. Bledsoe’s in the prime of his career, on a winning team with a young core orbiting one of the game’s best, playing for a coach he clearly gels with—how could he say no to four years and another $70 million?
“It was an easy decision,” he said.