IN NEW LEADING ROLE, BLEDSOE RETURNS TO L.A. WITH SUNS

LOS ANGELES – Wearing a black and white Phoenix Suns practice uniform, Eric Bledsoe stood Monday morning on the Clippers’ floor at Staples Center for the first time as a visitor.

“It is kind of weird,” he said of seeing the arena he called home for three years from the perspective of the opponent.

Phoenix’s leading man, a fan favorite in three seasons with the Clippers, has relished his opportunity in the desert. He still plays as though he were rocketed out of a slingshot. But he is also more patient. It's a quality Bledsoe said he learned from serving as an understudy to Chris Paul, Chauncey Billups and Baron Davis, three players among the top 35 all-time in assists.

“I don’t even know it when I’m doing it, but then when I go watch film I’ll be like, ‘Man, that looks like Chris a little bit or that looks like Chauncey or Baron or Mo Williams,’” Bledsoe said. 

Pressed for specifics, Bledsoe, who is averaging 18.4 points, 5.9 assists, 4.3 rebounds and 3.3 turnovers while shooting 49.2 percent and 35.4 percent from 3-point range, said it is little things that remind him of his All-Star mentors.

“I was always in so much of a hurry when I was playing backup role just doing everything," he said. "Now, I’m just patient. I get my teammates involved. [Playing with them] definitely rubbed off on me.”

Bledsoe is not Paul or Billups or any of the point guards he played with in L.A., though. Playing limited minutes in a reserve role for the Clippers made it difficult for him to fully display what kind of player he could be. And much like he did when he played behind Paul in L.A., or shifted to shooting guard as a college freshman to accommodate John Wall, the 24-year-old from Birmingham, Ala. has found a way, his way.

“I was definitely confident. Any position I was going to be in, I was going to make the best of it. I always do. In college, playing the two guard, I found a way to get drafted. Here, playing behind three point guards, a couple of the best in the game, I found a way to get on a team where I can play my game.

“I was playing so good here in the limited minutes I had. I wasn’t going to play in front of Chris. My best chance was to go somewhere like [Phoenix] where I could do it on my own.”

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Out of Paul’s shadow, the fourth-year guard, who was dealt to the Suns as part of the three-team trade that brought J.J. Redick and Jared Dudley to the Clippers this summer, is emerging as a star. He is meshing well with fellow point guard Goran Dragic in the backcourt and sounded genuinely happy to be a part of the Suns revival. Entering Monday’s matchup, the Suns are just a game and a half behind the Clippers in the Pacific Division. Bledsoe was supposed to be the leader of a rebuilding team, not a Playoff contender.

Suns head coach Jeff Hornacek thinks Bledsoe has been a catalyst for his team’s early season success. “I think the big thing is that defensively he’s one of the best at getting around picks,” Hornacek said. “That’s a very hard thing to do on pick-and-rolls and this league’s a pick-and-roll league now and to really fight over them (picks) he’s really good at it. So, that helps us there. Pushing it, between him and Goran  pushing the ball, we’ve got two guys who can really fly down there and hopefully get us into things quickly and get us some easy buckets.”

Those easy buckets are coming with the same kind of flair Bledsoe showed off with the Clippers. Perhaps, his most enduring fast-break basket came on an over-the-shoulder alley-oop from Paul against the Kings last season. He was electric, a tantalizing prospect. His blocked shot on Dwyane Wade’s dunk attempt in Nov. 2012 was the stuff of legend, his defense on Mike Conley in the postseason a year earlier, a significant reason the Clippers overcame the Grizzlies’ home-court advantage and advanced to round two in the 2012 Playoffs.

Over the summer, Bledsoe knew there was a chance he would get traded. He just never expected it to be Phoenix.

“I was shocked because I didn’t hear Phoenix. I was hearing, you know, Orlando, Boston, Toronto, different teams, but Phoenix never came up,” Bledsoe said. “I was pretty shocked it was in the same division, too.”

Being in the same division as his former team means four games a year playing across from Paul, a challenge both teacher and apprentice are looking forward to.

“I‘m excited,” Paul said. “I text Bled [Eric Bledsoe] all the time, even now, during the season when I‘m watching him play on [NBA] League Pass, some of the big games he‘s had. It‘s going to be fun, to tell you the truth, because Bled is unbelievable right now, and he‘s better now than he was last year, playing with a lot of confidence. So, we‘re going to compete.”

Bledsoe says he’s stayed in touch with a number of his former teammates, including Grant Hill, Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan. But he is in contact with Paul as much or more than anyone.

“After each game Chris will text me or I’ll text him that I love watching him play,” he said. “He’ll text me the same thing. I’ll text him on holidays or whatever, so we’ll always stay in touch.”

As for Los Angeles, it will always be a place the new Suns leader will recall fondly, even if it is a little weird returning as part of a road trip.

“It’s home,” Bledsoe said. “I did one year of college, so I was only in Lexington for one year. I was here for three years, so it feels like I’ve been here more than I’ve been in Alabama. It definitely feels like home.”