PHOENIX — Before the Phoenix Suns broke for the season last spring, coach Jeff Hornacek asked point guard Eric Bledsoe when he planned to leave town.
Never, Bledsoe said.
So began his summer of ascension.
After a short vacation, Bledsoe set up camp in Phoenix and worked on improving his conditioning and his shooting, especially from the mid-range. His dedication and drive have shown early in the Suns’ 5-4 start, and his strong play combined with that of Brandon Knight is the reason the Suns have a place in the conversation when the most league’s productive backcourts are discussed, Warriors or no Warriors.
Bledsoe had 30 points, seven assists, four rebounds and two steals in the Suns’ rout-diculous 105-81 victory Saturday over the Denver Nuggets, who were playing back-to-back games after beating Houston for the second time this season at home Friday.
It has become Bledsoe’s new normal.
Bledsoe entered the game as a quadruple threat, one of the league’s elite multi-taskers. Former Suns coach Alvin Gentry particularly identified Bledsoe when he spoke of the talented reserves the Los Angeles Clippers could roll out a few years ago, and the Suns are seeing what Gentry meant in Bledsoe’s third year here.
The full Bledsoe was on display again Saturday. Bledsoe scored on three mid-range jumpers early and ended the first quarter with a three-pointer. His left-handed 10-footer from near the lane was part of a 14-0 run to end the second quarter when the Suns took a 60-28 lead. Sixty-28.
Bledsoe had two more three-pointers in the third quarter before sitting out the fourth quarter, with Suns coach Jeff Hornacek well aware that the Suns have games Monday and Wednesday to conclude a stretch of four games in seven days.
“We played our game and had fun,” Bledsoe said.
Bledsoe’s game has evolved into something to see, and he’s one of three NBA players to average at least 22 points, six assists, four rebounds and two steals per game.
LeBron James and Russell Westbrook are the others. Stephen Curry is close, just short on assists right now, and he might get there this season after averaging more than six the last two years.
You can call it a small sample size, or you can call it a reflection of the time and work Bledsoe spent to take the next step.
It has the feel of the latter.
“I’m just being aggressive, man,” Bledsoe said. “I’m definitely bringing it every night.”
Does he notice his numbers?
“No,” he said. “It’s definitely a team thing. I’m just playing, having fun with my teammates.”
The Suns have a five-year, $70 million bargain in Bledsoe, whose contract was signed before last season. Brandon Knight signed a similar deal this offseason.
Bledsoe’s contract issue lingered into the late summer of 2015 before it was finally resolved, and he spent much of his time home in Alabama as the situation played out. That changed this summer, when the Suns spurred him to take his game just a little higher.
“You see stretches where Eric was dominant for six, seven minutes and then be kind of in cruise control,” Hornacek said of Bledsoe’s first two seasons here.
“We talked to him about being that dominant person the whole game. He’s worked his tail off this summer trying to do that. You could just tell that he wants to take that next step as a leader and a guy that can really step up his game and be the demanding force that we need him to be.”
Bledsoe is on the same page.
“That’s the type of player I need to be,” he said.
Dominating and consistent, Bledsoe has scored 20 or more points in four straight games, tying a career high, and he was four points short of his career high set in Houston last March.
Bledsoe missed about half of 2013-14 because of midseason knee surgery while averaging 17.7 points, 5.5 assists and 4.7 rebounds. He put up similar numbers in his first full season as an NBA starter last year at 17.0, 6.1 and 5.2. Part of his growth this season also is based on past experience, Hornacek believes.
“It’s a different ballgame when you are a starter and every night you have to bring it,” Hornacek said. “I think he learned last year that some games he tried to ease into the games. If he wants to go to the next level, he has to do it every night. So far he’s done that.”
After making 11-of-16 field goal attempts Saturday, none layups, he’s shooting 49.7 percent from the field and 40 percent from three-point range.
“He’s worked on his shooting over the summer,” Hornacek said. “We’ve talked to him about coming off those screens and pulling up, especially if they (defenders) are going to go behind, and he’s worked on it. That’s to his credit, that he spent the time this summer.”