Eric Bledsoe talks new life in Milwaukee, split with Phoenix Suns and more

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MILWAUKEE — Eric Bledsoe never has lived anywhere colder. He grew up in Birmingham, spent that one season in Lexington and then split his first seven NBA seasons between Los Angeles (three) and Phoenix (four). What’s been fairly mild for the folks accustomed to the rough months in southeastern Wisconsin still has been a harsh slap to Bledsoe’s 28-year-old cheeks.

Bledsoe’s wife Morgan and kids Eriauna and Ethan are some 1,500 miles away, staying in Arizona aside from a trek or two north to visit, the latest for Christmas. Morgan owns her own hair salon, which lent at least a little credibility to Bledsoe’s claims about his now-infamous “I Dont wanna be here” Tweet three games into the season.

The point guard claimed it was the salon, not the 0-3, firing-their-coach-Earl-Watson Suns, that he wanted to bolt. General manager Ryan McDonough didn’t buy that. So he sat Bledsoe down on Oct. 23 and, two weeks and eight games later, ended his Phoenix tenure by trading him to the Bucks for big man Greg Monroe and a pair of conditional draft picks.

Since then, there have been no “I wanna be here” messages about Milwaukee in the @EBled2 feed, just a lot of thank-you responses to fans, some retweeted highlight plays and the stray recommendation for a late-night wings stop. Bledsoe has made his presence known with his play, helping the Bucks to an 11-7 mark since his arrival.

A 20-point, six-assist man in his two final Suns seasons, Bledsoe’s numbers are down a bit in Milwaukee (17.5 ppg, 4.2 apg) but his impact is up. He has formed what’s gaining some traction as a “KEG” threat with Khris Middleton and Giannis Antetokounmpo — Milwaukee, keg, get it? — to become the highest scoring trio (67.2 ppg) in the NBA’s Eastern Conference.

Heading into their clash Tuesday with conference honcho Cleveland, the Bucks have scored at least 100 points in 11 consecutive games, their longest such streak since 1990-91. They have turned over the ball 11 times or fewer in seven of their past eight games. And Bledsoe’s winning numbers are strong: a plus-7.0 per 48 minutes for a team that is a minus-0.5 overall, and a net rating of plus 6.6 (per 100 possessions) that is 1.6 better than MVP aspirant Antetokounmpo.

Bledsoe took time after a Bucks practice and a players association meeting late last week to talk with NBA.com about his new surroundings, his switch to a playoff contender, his strong view on hoops analytics and his “Mini-LeBron” nickname, among other things:

NBA.com: So it was Jamal Crawford, when you were both with the Clippers, who tagged you with the “Mini-LeBron” nickname. How did that come about?

Eric Bledsoe: He’d tell me he had guys like Blake [Griffin], D.J. [DeAndre Jordan], my main guy CP3 [Chris Paul] telling him how I’d stand out every time I get in the game, doing the stuff I do. He’d really only seen selected things, like blocking shots or chasing down shots, or getting a crazy dunk or something else to stand out from the crowd. He just started calling me that.

NBA.com: So it was for your versatility or your physicality?

EB: It was kind of both. The way I was built, my body. The way I played. Pretty much a little of everything.

NBA.com: Have you always been built like a fullback?

EB: I was actually smaller in high school, but I always played stronger than what I was. So my game pretty much hasn’t changed.

NBA.com: Can you imagine the type of player you’d be in you were 6-foot-8?

EB: That’s what Jamal told me, that if I were 6-8, I’d probably be the same player [LeBron James is].

NBA.com: With the dunks and the chasedowns and the …

EB: It’s normal to me. It’s just talked about by everybody else because of my size. And they don’t expect me to do those type of things. Where now that I’ve been in the league this long, [opponents] kind of expect it. Even when I try to chase down and block somebody’s shot, I can see ‘em looking back at me. Where they’re aware of it.

NBA.com: What sort relationship do you have with LeBron?

EB: He’s like a big brother to me. I used to call him, text him for advice, on leading my team and stuff like that. He’s a great friend.

NBA.com: When did your paths first cross?

EB: My first time meeting him was in college — he came to one of our practices in Kentucky. It just went on from there. Then I became friends with Chris Paul and he was around, and then it started growing from there.

NBA.com: You invited him to your wedding in July?

EB: Of course. He couldn’t make it. I really only had my two best friends from the NBA there, John [Wall] and DeMarcus [Cousins]. They were the only ones from the league there.

NBA.com: I saw an issue of “Muscle & Fitness” magazine last spring in which you and your family were featured.

EB: That diet thing just came from me being injured. It had nothing to do with how strong I was. It was just about me trying to take care of my body [while hurt]. How to eat right, things like that. Just provide energy, really.

NBA.com: It sounded as if you’re not as committed to weights as your upper body might suggest.

EB: Nah, I don’t hit the weights as far as trying to get stronger. I try to do more stuff as far as balance, keeping my hips low. Core’s tight. Never me bench-pressing the max I can, nothing like that.

NBA.com: I spent one season covering your college, Kentucky, for the Lexington newspaper. The claim back then was, under Joe B. Hall, the basketball team had more players who could bench-press 300 pounds than the football team.

EB: Oh wow, I didn’t know that. Not so good for the football team. Basketball, I don’t think is played on strength like that.

NBA.com: Your time with the Clippers led to a friendship with Chris Paul too. What was that like, playing the point guard position behind him?

EB: Oh yeah, I learned a lot from him. Just how engaged he is, how he prepared each and every game. He’s a winner. And that’s what I learned from him: no matter the circumstances, no matter how he felt each game, he always brought it. Every night. Even if a night wasn’t going his way, he found a way to win. He never scored the most points every night or had every assist every night, but he always found a way for his team to win. He found a way to lock in.

NBA.com: We always hear that the measure of a good young point guard is knowing when to tell teammates “no” when they want the ball.

EB: Of course. That’s a thing with point guards, especially veterans. Players respect the veteran point guards more than they do a rookie. They get it from watching you play — some players might hate you from playing against you, but love having you play on their team. In Chris’ situation, he’s been an All-Star and won in this league, and people pretty much respect that. Me, I’m trying to get up in that category.

NBA.com: It seems as if you had a pretty short learning curve getting accustomed to the Bucks players’ games.

EB: Of course. That’s the whole point as a professional athlete. You study the game, you pretty much know every team’s tendencies because you’ve been in the league. I’ve been in the league eight years so I’ve played against Milwaukee twice a year. I pretty much knew the guys and their games. But the relationships don’t get built till you get on a team. You know their tendencies before you know their personalities.

NBA.com: Is it challenging to go against friends?

EB: Nah, because once you get on the court, it’’s all about winning. That’s what makes the relationship even bigger. Coming at each other. Me and John [Wall] probably go at each other every time we step on the court. We’re best of friends, but at the same time, we know each other is gonna bring it. So we can’t slack that night. That’s pretty much every night but playing against them, you want to beat ‘em. It’s their team against yours and you both know what it is.

NBA.com: What do you make of this Bucks team after your first 18 games with them?

EB: We’re playing hard, man. Like I said, that’s 90 percent of it. I mean, I don’t know all the plays. I’m not perfect out there. But what I do, I give my all. Any player who has great passion, who knows how to play the game and goes out there giving it his all, you’re pretty much going to have a great outcome. Each and every night is not going to be pretty. You see teams that have been together for a while still losing.

NBA.com: Are you satisfied with your production to this point?

EB: I thought I was going to be playing a whole lot better. And I’ve still got a long ways to go. I put in the work this summer and it’s showing little by little. It’s only going to get better. It’s just being patient and playing hard. Even though we’re not clicking like we should be, it’s gonna come. We just have to keep playing hard like we’ve been doing, play great defense and have fun.

NBA.com: Your shooting suffered when you first got to Milwaukee .Did you know why?

EB: I can’t even tell you. I hadn’t played in about two weeks. I can go out in practice and make all my shots, but come into a game and miss all of ‘em.

NBA.com: During that time, did you consciously try to dial up your defensive performance?

EB: That’s what most players know about me, that I can change the game without scoring or even having a good offensive night. I can always make trouble for who I guard and control the effort I bring. You can shoot the ball out there and not make it and win. You can have a low energy game, and it affects the whole team.

NBA.com: The numbers suggest your impact has been considerable. Are you a fan of analytics ?

EB: I hate it. Yeah. Somehow it can show that an average player can be better than a superstar player in some aspects, and that don’t mean nothing. It’s all about wins, losses and the effort you bring every night. Analytics, sometimes I don’t get it. … You’re going to put your best five on the court, analytics or not.

NBA.com: What has Milwaukee been like for you away from the court?

EB: It’s tough. Getting used to the cold weather. My family is home, my kids are in school. Kentucky and Alabama get cold but they don’t get this cold. It’s a different type of cold. I don’t really see snow too often so I was pretty excited to see it. I know it can get overwhelming sometimes though.

NBA.com: Thoughts on seeing up close and playing with Giannis?

EB: It’s crazy. I didn’t understand how talented he is. The guy can score 30 points and he doesn’t even make a 3-pointer. It’s crazy to see because he works hard on his shooting. Once he figures that out, he’s gonna be scary. Then he’s gonna start picking teams apart.

NBA.com: Have you consciously tried to reduce his workload?

EB: I do, I do. That’s what good players do, try to help their team. The point guard is the most important position on the court. They often have to be the best player, not by choice but because that’s what the game demands as far as all the thinking you have to do and picking and choosing when to score or pass, things like that.

NBA.com: You guys have had a rash of injuries, from Jabari Parker’s second ACL recovery to Matthew Dellavedova, Tony Snell, Mirza Teletovic and Jason Terry. Has that made things more difficult?

EB: People got to step up. I thought some guys from our bench did a great job: Gary Payton [II], Rashad [Vaughn], Sterling [Brown]. DeAndre [Liggins], Malcolm [Brogdon]. They did a great job of giving us that boost.

NBA.com: We’re far enough removed from the trade now to wonder, was it awkward the way you exited Phoenix?

EB: No. I was pretty much like, ‘Whatever.’ I just wanted to get in a better situation.

NBA.com: Have you changed your approach to social media?

EB: No. What I tweeted had nothing to do with what was going on. It’s just that we lost three straight games, the coach getting fired. That was the only thing that everybody was alluding to. I wouldn’t change a thing about it, it had nothing to do with that.

NBA.com: Do you still keep one eye on the Suns?

EB: Oh yeah, man, I watch ‘em. But I love watching basketball. I’ll watch anybody, I’ll watch college. Try to get better, steal people’s moves, try to see where we can get better wacthing players we have to play the next game. Watching my games, seeing where I can get better as far as turning the ball over or getting people their shots. I pretty much watch everything.

NBA.com: Now that you’ve been traded twice, how do the experiences compare?

EB: Actually, it was the same to me. The first time, I pretty much knew I had to get traded, just on the strength of everything that was going on, them having to sign Chris, my contract coming up. So I kind of knew I had to spread out a little bit. It was time.

This time, it was better for me. I’d get a chance to play for something and a chance to see how good I am, as far as helping a team achieve what it needs to achieve.

NBA.com: The veterans you’re friends with, the stars, all talk about their legacies. What about you, what are you seeking here?

EB: I mean, I want to be one of the best point guards in the league. And I’ve got a chance to, playing alongside great players, a great team, a great coach who’s been considered one of those at the point.

NBA.com: How helpful is Jason Kidd, as far as coaching point guards after being Hall of Fame-worthy at that spot?

EB: Oh yeah, he’s competitive, man. I was talking to one of the coaches who was on the staff when he played, and he told me how prepared [Kidd] was in practice, how he wanted to win each and every drill. And that shows on the court. You can tell even though he ain’t playing, how he’s competitive for us out there. We’ll go through plays and he’ll tell us not to be robots out there.

NBA.com: Have you gotten any particularly tips from Kidd’s game?

EB: Nah, he just told me I’ve got to bring it. And lead these guys. Every time I check out of a game, he tells me that. When I’m out there on the court, they look for me, they wait for the plays to be called, they want me setting the tone defensively.

NBA.com: Have you sought out Malcolm Brogdon, last year’s Rookie of the Year and now your backup, to smooth over any potential bruised feedlings?

EB: No, I wasn’t sensitive about it. It’s basketball. Malcolm, he’s a pro. He has great vets here. He’s definitely got to be a professional with it. With him being a young player and me a veteran now, I’ve talked to him while games are going on. Just how we need him to be aggressive and get everybody in their spots.

NBA.com: What has the key been to living away from your family for the first time?

EB: They visited up here once — they just left — and they’re coming back for Christmas and all. With the kids, [the key is] FaceTime. We’ve got a lot of FaceTime in. It is [hard to be Dad]. I’m not there physically but they see a lot of me on the cell phone now.

Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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