Originally published in SLAM 174

by Abe Schwadron@abe_squad

There’s a very good chance that Eric Bledsoe is your favorite NBA player’s favorite NBA player. His teammates call him “Mini-LeBron.” And he’s about to go from a sparkplug backup to the biggest breakout star of the ’13-14 season. Don’t believe us, just watch.

Flipped from Los Angeles to Phoenix after two years under the tutelage of the game’s best point guard, Chris Paul, Bledsoe will finally get the opportunity so many around the League have hoped he would—the chance to run his own squad. With athleticism beyond belief and a franchise ready to hand him the keys to an uptempo offense, Bled is ready to explode.

But wait a minute. Something ain’t right. It’s a few weeks before the start of his first season as a full-time NBA starter, and Bledsoe just said something crazy: “I really didn’t start learning until my 12th grade year.”

As in, Bledsoe claims he didn’t genuinely begin learning how to play basketball until he was 18 years old. Bledsoe, now 23, repeats himself, without the slightest change in intonation. Sure, he knew the basics of the game. He knew the rules, understood the positions. But before his senior year of high school, Bledsoe says he relied almost entirely on instinct and effort.

“I was a determined kid. Most definitely I was always the smallest. I didn’t know how to play. I knew to rebound, to pass,” the short but jacked PG recalls, “but I really didn’t know what I was doing, because I really never worked out or nothing like that.”

So how is it possible that Bledsoe—one of the most coveted players in the League after CP3 re-signed with the Clippers in July, leading Phoenix to trigger a blockbuster three-team trade over the summer to acquire his services—didn’t get serious about the game until just five years ago?

“Alabama is a football state, so people really didn’t know much about hoops,” he says.

Coming up in Birmingham, Bledsoe played every sport he could, despite always being the smallest kid in the mix. On the soccer field, he played right wing. On the baseball diamond, he pitched. And had things gone differently, he would have been one hell of a cornerback or running back on the gridiron. But around fifth grade, Bledsoe took a special liking to basketball. His mother, Maureen Reddick, remembers having to convince him to quit shooting hoops and come inside, even in the winter. “I’d yell, Get in the house, it’s cold, you gon’ get sick,” she says. “And he’d be like, ‘OK momma, OK momma, I’m coming, just give me a few more minutes.’” Dinner time be damned, young Eric had hoop dreams.

By the time he was a senior at Parker HS, Bledsoe was putting up 20.3 points, 11.5 assists and 9.4 rebounds per game. He was a 5-star recruit, among the best two-dozen players in the country in his class. And yet he still felt under the radar. “Alabama wasn’t big on basketball. Coaches really didn’t come down to see me play, they was just going off the rankings and whatnot.”

At least one saw Bledsoe play, though. John Calipari pitched Bledsoe on Kentucky by being straight-up with him about UK’s potent recruiting class.

“He asked me a question about him also recruiting John [Wall]. I told him I didn’t care. And right then he just fell in love with me,” Bledsoe recalls with a laugh. “He didn’t promise me nothing. He told me everything I get I’m going to have to earn it. And he said the same thing to John. He said if you’re better, we’ll play you.”

Turns out, they played alongside one another, with Bledsoe sliding over to the 2. As his Twitter bio reads, “Played SG at Kentucky…Now back to playing point guard.”

After landing in La La Land in the first round of the ’10 Draft, Bledsoe endured a turnover-plagued summer league (which he calls the worst stretch of his basketball playing career) and a rough rookie season, before suddenly finding himself sharing a locker room with Paul.

There’s a YouTube video that still sits on Bledsoe’s University of Kentucky bio page, in which he’s asked to name his basketball role model. “I kinda like Chris Paul,” Bledsoe mutters. Less than two years after that video was uploaded, Bledsoe was hanging out with CP3 every day, soaking up as much wisdom as possible. And we’re about to find out just how much he learned, as he begins life as a starter in a new city.

Bledsoe acknowledges that his time with the Clippers had run its course, and he’s ready to face the next challenge. “When Chris signed back, I kind of figured I was going to get traded,” he says, adding that the only question was which coast, since Boston pursued him heavily, too.

Like Paul, Bledsoe is great at putting his teammates in positions to succeed, and he excels in the pick-and-roll. But unlike the veteran, Bledsoe is a nature-defying athlete. His numbers weren’t gaudy—he averaged 8.5 ppg, 3.1 apg and 3.0 rpg behind CP3 last season—but also averaged less than 20 mpg.

Bledsoe will have to prove he can hit a jumper, and that he can handle 35 minutes a night, but defensively, he’s already elite. He’s the rare NBA player whose lack of height doesn’t impact his ability to guard, thanks to athleticism so freakish it belongs in a Ripley’s Believe It Or Not book. Consider, EB was measured at just under 6-1 without shoes on at the NBA Draft Combine back in 2010. Meanwhile, his wingspan is over 6-7. Which means he’s a menace in passing lanes, and he can body up bigger guards. His athleticism translates to the advanced stat sheet: in ’12-13, Bledsoe was No. 3 in the NBA in steal rate (percentage of possessions in which a player records a steal while he’s on the court), behind only CP3 and Ricky Rubio, and he was No. 1 among all NBA guards in block rate.

Bledsoe is the best shot-blocking guard in the NBA, and his ability to make a game-changing chase-down block is not only as exciting as a ferocious dunk, but he much prefers it. Bledsoe says he likes to steam downcourt to swat away an easy bucket to fire up his teammates, and just to remind us all what kind of player he is.

His first summer out in L.A., Bledsoe remembers having an exchange with Paul Pierce: “We was playing pickup, and I turned the ball over and Paul told me—he was like, ‘You can’t make a mistake on top of a mistake.’ He was saying that you can’t turn the ball over and then not get back and make another mistake. So ever since then, I’m always going to try to get the ball back.”

Bledsoe’s high motor will be welcome in Phoenix, where rookie head coach Jeff Hornacek wants his team to play hard and play fast. While the Suns aren’t expected to compete for much more than 10th place in the West, it’s a roster that has some intriguing pieces, including Bled’s new backcourt mate Goran Dragic, rookie Alex Len and the Morris twins. And Hornacek certainly doesn’t mind Bledsoe bringing in a winning attitude.

“We had a scrimmage, and we were just kind of finishing it out, it was like a fourth quarter that we had played. I switched the teams up a little bit and now all of a sudden he was on the team that was losing. He wanted to stay in there the whole time to try to win the game,” Hornacek chuckles. “You just love his competitiveness.”

Hornacek tries not to gush over Bledsoe’s natural abilities, but he can barely help himself. “He’s got the tools,” says the coach. “He’s got the potential to be an All-Star, and not six years down the line—I think he has the potential to do that relatively quickly.”

And Hornacek isn’t the only one. Dragic uses the “mini-LeBron” moniker that Bledsoe’s Clipper teammates used since he arrived in the L. Paul has said “Bled is one of the best guards in our League,” while CP3’s father took to calling him “Little Hercules.” Before being traded to the Bucks, veteran teammate Caron Butler called him “an explosive, dynamic guard who has superstar written all over him.” Over the summer, Jamal Crawford said, “He’ll be a star, no question.” Other mentors, like Chauncey Billups, Mo Williams, Grant Hill and Baron Davis have repeatedly echoed the same praise in similar ways. At this point, given the number of times the expression is used in association with his name, Bledsoe ought to have Weezy’s “Sky Is The Limit” blasting behind him wherever he goes.

But in true Bledsoe form, he takes the myriad of salutes through the media as motivation, not recognition. “It just makes me want to get in the gym and work even harder,” says Bledsoe, who is averaging a healthy 19.6 ppg, 5.9 apg, 4.5 rpg and 1.7 spg through the season’s first few weeks. “Because they can say anything in the world, but I still got to go out there and play.”

There will be adjustments, of course. Like playing with Dragic, who has himself been a primary ballhandler for most of his career. But both Bledsoe and Hornacek expect the Suns’ up-and-down style to render questions of point guard vs off-guard irrelevant. His Twitter page notwithstanding, Bledsoe could care less what position you want to label him.

“It doesn’t matter. I’m a”—he pauses—“I’m a basketball player, man.”

Five years ago, Eric Bledsoe may not have described himself that way. Back in Birmingham, he stuck with hoops because the game was fun and it kept him out of trouble. Now, with some polish and a work ethic absorbed from playing understudy to a future Hall of Famer, he’s poised to put Phoenix—and Alabama—back on the map, and launch himself into stardom. Just like his teammates predicted.