UK's Eric Bledsoe: The Other Guy
To say Kentucky had trouble handling the ball last year would be like saying America's economy has hit a bit of a rough patch. The Cats averaged more turnovers per game (16.9) than assists (15.7), and had 10 games where they surpassed 20 giveaways, including a back-to-back stretch against VMI and North Carolina where they totaled 53 turnovers. The problem didn't fade away throughout the season either, as the Cats ended the season with two 20+ turnover games in their last four outings, both of which resulted in losses.
Enter a highly-touted, five star point guard rated among the best high school players in the country. Nope - not that guy. Meet Kentucky's “other” freshman guard – Eric Bledsoe. It isn't often that an elite recruit joins a team badly in need of his skill set, and yet he still gets overlooked. But such is life for the 6'1 Alabama native, and he's perfectly content with it.
With much of the attention focused on fellow five-star point guard John Wall, Bledsoe (10.5 ppg, 3.1 apg) is quietly carving out a role for a team with championship aspirations. While Wall and fellow freshman phenom DeMarcus Cousins dominate many of the headlines, it might be Bledsoe who has the biggest say in how far the Cats can go this year.
Although he lacks Wall's otherworldly explosiveness, Bledsoe is a terrific athlete in his own right, having already produced a number of highlight reel dunks and blocked shots. He's got a good-looking perimeter shot (five 3's against Sam Houston State), and is an 87 percent free throw shooter. He's got the speed to push the ball at the pace John Calipari demands, but he also has the ability to create plays off the dribble in halfcourt settings, using his tremendous quickness and flashy ball-handling to beat his man.
Better yet, Bledsoe's high-profile backcourt mate means he gets to fly under the radar a bit. He'll be the third or fourth mention on most scouting reports, and he'll be able leave most of the post-game interviews to Wall and junior All-American candidate Patrick Patterson. He won't see his face used on the promos for upcoming games, and you're not going to see a whole lot of replica #24 jerseys on campus. In other words, Bledsoe gets a luxury that many elite recruits don't...being a freshman.
In today's college basketball world, freshmen who make an immediate impact are no longer the exception. From Carmelo Anthony to Kevin Durant to Michael Beasley, to Derrick Rose, we've become accustomed to seeing highly-touted recruits take over the college games as soon as they step on the floor, and it's become easy to forget that these are 18 and 19-year old kids who are still growing and maturing. When you add in the pressure of doing that on national television and plastered across newsstands, it can become an anchor that drags the player down as he tries to meet everyone's expectations.
Look no further than Derrick Caracter for a lesson in what happens when a freshman can't handle the bright lights. Once a sure-fire future NBA player, Caracter is now getting a second chance at UTEP after being kicked off the Louisville basketball team at least a half-dozen times for various transgressions.
On most teams, Bledsoe would be wearing that anchor. Remember, he was a five-star recruit who had his choice of colleges as a senior. After all, who wouldn't want a lightning-quick guard with a solid shot and a fearless nature? But because of his teammates, Bledsoe is able to avoid the all-encompassing spotlight that burns on most elite players, and just focus on improving as he adjusts to the college game.
But don't mistake the lack of hype for a lack of importance. When Wall left the North Carolina game with cramps, it was Bledsoe who manned the point. Granted, it was during this time that the Heels sliced into a 19-point lead, but at the end of the game, there was Bledsoe sinking five crucial, pressure-filled free throws to hold off a furious UNC rally. With each swish, the Rupp crowd roared their approval, and Bledsoe kept his hand in the air a little longer, clearly gaining confidence.
Bledsoe's calm demeanor and poise will certainly come in handy this year, as a young but talented Kentucky squad is sure to get every team's best shot. With so many teams focused on taking away the uber-talented Wall, Bledsoe is likely to see his role grow as the season progresses. His shot will help spread the floor for the Cats on offense, and along with Wall, his speed ensures the Cats will likely have no trouble breaking a full court press. On defense, Bledsoe's quick hands and fearless nature make an ideal fit for Calipari's pressure-intensive style, and if he's able to stay out of foul trouble, he'll quickly become one of the SEC's toughest match-ups.
So while Wall may make the highlights, and Patterson may make the magazine covers, don't forget about Bledsoe. If UK is able to deliver on the incredible hype and cut down the nets this year, don't forget to look at #24. He'll be in the background....right where he wants.