John Gasaway: Welcome everyone to what I hope will be the first of many college-pro Back-and-Forths from Basketball Prospectus. I'm a college kind of hoops guy here with NBA demigod Kevin Pelton, and we're fixin’ to talk about a Kentucky freshman. No, not that UK freshman. Or, uh, that one either, actually. Man, there are a lot of them, aren’t there? No, I mean Eric Bledsoe! Isn't that right Kevin?
Kevin Pelton: Indeed it is, John. While we media types were busy focusing on John Wall, apparently NBA scouts have been able to take their eyes off of him and watch his backcourt-mate. ESPN Insider's Chad Ford reported ($) last week that he's been told by multiple NBA teams that they rank Bledsoe as a lottery pick. Bill Simmons then fanned the flames by comparing Bledose to Oklahoma City's Russell Westbrook and predicting Bledsoe would end up a top-six pick.
John: I saw the Sports Guy's tweet and I thought his Westbrook comparison was apt. Then again Westbrook was a lottery pick after his sophomore year. Kevin, from what you've seen is Bledsoe really lottery-ready as-is, or is this just a statement on how thin the supply of point guards figures to be in this year's draft?
Kevin: I decided to take a scouting-focused approach to watching Kentucky's blowout win over Arkansas on Saturday. I saw a lot of the talent that has Bledsoe climbing, but also some of the reasons why he would struggle in the NBA next season.
In the open court, Bledsoe’s a blur who found his teammates for easy scores. But he really seemed to struggle when playing in traffic, and the Razorback frontcourt will not be confused for an NBA frontline anytime soon. I think it's safe to say he'd have a considerable adjustment period to the NBA.
What do you see in his numbers?
John: Actually this is one case where his numbers and my eyeballs are in perfect agreement. A lot of times when I watch UK, Wall is driving into the paint at a Memphis-like 45 degree angle and Bledsoe is spotting up on the line on the weak side, waiting for his chance. Sure enough for the year he's hitting 44 percent of his threes. I’ll say this for the kid, he can shoot.
What concerns me, though, is the fact that like almost all freshman point guards, Bledsoe has a pretty low two-point percentage and an extremely high turnover rate. By contrast what was impressive about, say, Jonny Flynn, was that even though he was undersized and operating at high speed he could finish in the paint and take care of the ball. Assuming Bledsoe is indeed drafted this summer, am I wrong to think he’d be more of a medium-term project than an immediate contributor?
Kevin: No, I think that's exactly right. The thinking when Wall committed to Kentucky was that he and Bledsoe would have a tough time coexisting, and I did notice a few times where both of them had the same point guard instincts in terms of going to get the basketball after a defensive rebound. However, Wall's presence seems to have helped Bledsoe out by minimizing the weaknesses you’ve seen and by creating a lot of good looks for him.
I suspect Bledsoe would benefit immensely from another year and a chance to run the team on his own, kind of like the aforementioned Westbrook as compared to Jrue Holiday. Westbrook had a chance to play point for part of his sophomore season when Darren Collison was injured, as well as another year of experience. On the other hand Holiday left UCLA after one year of playing next to Collison, and while I like his chances as a prospect, he's been a bit contributor so far this season.
John: I totally agree that Bledsoe could use another year in Lexington. But to test my opinion I asked our colleague Ken Pomeroy to find the most comparable player-years for Bledsoe from the kenpom database.
I'll grant going in that this whole “comparable player” exercise is a bit unfair to Bledsoe. Obviously Wall is monopolizing the assists at UK this season. (We know they’re certainly not coming from DeMarcus Cousins. Har!) Still when I saw these results I thought they were enough to give me pause if I'm an NBA GM. The single most similar player-year to what Bledsoe is doing right now is....
Tyshawn Taylor of Kansas. Last year. (Or as Ken winningly phrased it, “Before Taylor wanted to beat up football players.”) Next up: Evan Turner of Ohio State. But before you say, "Wow, Evan Turner!" keep in mind this is 2008 Evan Turner we're talking about. The similarity in the numbers may suggest big things to come for Bledsoe, but it also suggests to me that those big things won’t come next year at "the next level."
Kevin: I do think Bledsoe's future is ultimately bright, though. As we've discussed many times here at Prospectus, the NBA's rule re-interpretations limiting contact on the perimeter have put a premium on speed, and Bledsoe certainly has that. John Calipari calls Bledsoe "one of the fastest players I've ever coached" in his bio, and given the guards Calipari has had, that's saying something. At 6-1 Bledsoe will be undersized in the NBA, but his strength and leaping ability will help him make up for it.
Maybe this is a case where the hype is just a little bit out ahead of the reality but not really in conflict with it. As DraftExpress' Jonathan Givony--who has been cautious in moving Bledsoe on his 2010 draft board--pointed out, these projections can ultimately have a significant impact on a player's career, and I think it would be wise for both Bledsoe and NBA teams to use some patience. As you pointed out, Bledsoe might look different if he were compared to the bumper crop of point guards from last year's first round as opposed to just one elite prospect this year…who happens to be his teammate.
John: Knowing the future is likely to be bright but that 2010-11 may be less so (again, assuming the year is spent in the NBA), I think the real question is does it make sense for a team to spend a lottery pick on Bledsoe this June? How say you?
Kevin: A lot can change between now and then depending on the eventual strength of the draft pool, team needs, and more, but right now I would say anything earlier than about pick 20 would be a bit of a reach.
John: OK, last question, and I don't mean for this to sound facetious because I'm actually serious. It seemed to me that the buzz on Bledsoe ramped up after he almost got in a fight with Louisville's Reginald Delk on national TV on January 2. And it was literally in the opening seconds of that contest. Never in my life have I seen a game go from zero to malice so fast. Even if they wouldn't admit it, can NBA decision-makers be swayed (and I mean positively) by this kind of fiery stand-your-ground attitude from a little guy?
Kevin: I do think NBA folks appreciate that kind of toughness, but I'm not sure that's the explanation here. There are an awful lot of eyes on Kentucky this year for obvious reasons, and I think people eventually began liking what they were seeing from Bledsoe. Keep in mind there's also a bit of a trailing effect between NBA draft boards beginning to change and when those moves are reported in the media. I think that explains why Bledsoe is all of a sudden considered a lottery prospect after previously being an afterthought.
John: My theory: Ostentatiously talented college teams like UConn '06 or Florida '07 produce exactly 1.0 too many draft picks, due simply to the resulting scout-cluster. But I'll leave that for another day. Kevin, any parting words for this notably diverse college-pro crowd we've gathered?
Kevin: Well, I think we’d be remiss if we made no mention of the rule that allows Bledsoe to leave after this season should he so choose. Lately sentiment seems to be growing that the optimal situation for players and both the NCAA and the NBA is a system like MLB's, where a player who chooses to attend college is not eligible until after his junior year.
Sorry, but this is an example of why I just don't buy that argument at all. If Bledsoe's stock really puts him in the lottery, there's as much downside to his staying in college as upside. I'm generally in favor of giving players as much freedom as possible, and if college coaches don't like that, they can choose to not recruit talented players. I'll get off my soapbox now.
John: Nice catch, KP. Folks, I'm on the record as agreeing with my colleague here completely. So we're both right. And on that smug note, Kevin, be sure to tell your man Simmons he's exactly right about Bledsoe's stock--for 2011.
Kevin: I think you just told him yourself. Later.
John: Careful around the Wizards locker room, my friend. Take care.
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John Gasaway is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
You can contact John by clicking here or click here to see John's other articles.
Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
You can contact Kevin by clicking here or click here to see Kevin's other articles.