As an athlete, Bledsoe’s combination of lateral quickness, power, speed and improvisational grace sets him well apart even in the NBA. But his body seems oddly misshapen. It’s his arms, mostly. They don’t belong; as though Bledsoe stole them from a much taller man, or some parts were mixed up in the factory.
In fact Bledsoe’s wingspan exceeds his height by more than seven inches. That’s the same discrepancy as ol’ cartoon arms himself, Kevin Durant … except Durant is almost a foot taller.
This is worth mentioning because we tend judge the skill of a basketball player by the things he does with his hands — the fine motor skills of the NBA are controlled dribbling, accurate shooting, the deft pass. That Bledsoe’s hands are affixed to arms that appear generally unwieldy gives even his most delicate moves a sense of awkwardness. They contribute to the unfairly enduring perception that Bledsoe is more track athlete than basketball player, that he can’t, say, run the pick-and-roll.
Of course Bledsoe is physically imposing, and at just 6-0, he somehow manages to be a defensive wunderkind. As a general rule, it’s more difficult for point guards to have as constant and profound an impact on a team’s defense than a power forward or center. More or less, that’s because point guards are constantly dealing with ball screens, which means they need lots of help, while big men have a singular ability to impact those valuable shots near the basket.
Well, Bledsoe is different. There is a real gulf between the defense he plays and the defense that pretty much every other guard in the NBA plays.
His new nickname might be Mini-LeBron, but Bledsoe is more comparable to Dwyane Wade, the NBA’s longtime “Best Shot-blocking Guard,” a title that now belongs to Bledsoe. Like a younger Wade, Bledsoe dramatically tilts the odds in his favor on any 50-50 ball, and he has a knack for anticipating passes and making defensive plays that the offense just never sees coming. 6-0 guards shouldn’t win tip-ins over Tim Duncan or stop 2-on-1 fast breaks with a block, but Bledsoe makes those kinds of plays several times every game.
Against Chicago on Saturday, to pick a ready example, he broke up three different handoff plays in the span of a few minutes. When Nate Robinson ran off the screen, Bledsoe would not only prevent him from receiving the ball, but twice just snatched the ball from the player making the handoff (the third time he deflected the ball out of bounds). On Monday against San Antonio, he somehow read and picked off a pass that Manu Ginobili had thrown between a defender’s legs.
These are the moments that separate Bledsoe from most NBA players, who wouldn’t even try to do what he seems to accomplish rather effortlessly. He’s just different.
Or, take his series-deciding performance against the Mike Conley and the Memphis Grizzlies in last year’s playoffs. Conley might not rank as an elite point guard, but he is crafty, lightning quick and often the engine of the Memphis offense. Bledsoe ate his lunch. It wasn’t that he slowed him down. Conley collapsed, and so did the Memphis offense, when Bledsoe came in the game.
If point guard defense matters a bit less because it’s basically an impossible task, consider the value of Bledsoe, one of only a couple players who can be reliably deployed to accomplish that very task. No one else eats space quite like Bledsoe because no one else with his length has his quickness and strength, so unlike many tall, long players, Bledsoe doesn’t have to give much cushion.
That means he can just do stuff no other player can do. Are you picking up on the theme?