PHOENIX — Suns point guard Eric Bledsoe returned home from a road trip early this season under specific orders.
Do not call Uber.
Do not come to the next game early.
The instructions went to Bledsoe’s consummate dedication.
Bledsoe has so taken to heart his responsibility as the Suns’ young leader that he often comes to the arena in the middle of the afternoon for early work. 3 p.m., four hours before tip time, is normal. 4 p.m., he is running a little late. After the Suns’ trip in November that included stops in New Orleans, Los Angeles and Portland, coach Earl Watson said he would fine any Sun — he was looking at Bledsoe — who showed up early for the Detroit game, the day after the long flight home from Portland.
Bledsoe was not sure if Watson was serious, but he was not going to take the chance.
“I definitely don’t want nobody to take my money, ” Bledsoe said.
Bledsoe has earned every penny.
The Suns are getting the big contract value out of Bledsoe, who is having the best season of his seven-year career as midseason approaches while returning from a left knee injury that caused him to miss the final 52 games of 2015-16.
Bledsoe is averaging 20.4 points and 5.8 assists, and he is three rebounds short of becoming one of six players in the league averaging 20/5/5. He had 31 points, eight assists and two rebounds in a 120-116 loss to Cleveland last Sunday, and he did not need to put up those numbers to impress pal LeBron James, one of the five in the 20/5/5 club:
The two have been tight for several years now, since James met Bledsoe at a Kentucky game in 2009-10. James went to the internet to suggest the Suns “break bread” — it read an awful lot like break the bank — to sign Bledsoe in the summer of 2014, and the sides ultimately agreed on a five-year, $70 million contract.
“He’s like my big brother, ” Bledsoe said. “I can call him any time for advice and he is always willing to talk.”
After the game Sunday, James sought out Bledsoe to compliment him on the continued development of his jump shot. Bledsoe has made 55 three-pointers, on pace for a career high. James also told Bledsoe “to keep playing the way I am playing, ” Bledsoe said.
James said he believes the steadiness in Bledsoe’s game can be traced to the stability in his life away from the court. Bledsoe, 27, and his fiancée Maureen have two young children and have plans to marry. Bledsoe’s mother Maureen always has been a positive presence, and Bledsoe said he is simply passing to his family the love with which he was raised.
“I think the reason he is playing so well on the floor is he is a complete family man at this point, ” James said. “Kids. Beautiful family. Beautiful fiancée. His mom has been the backbone of it all.
“It makes the game that much easier when things off the court are well off. He’s a little brother of mine. He’s been that for six years now. I love everything that he is doing, all the success that he is having. He’s an unbelievable talent.”
Yoga has not hurt, either, Bledsoe said. Watson has the Suns doing yoga once a week in the offseason and through training camp.
“It’s all the yoga, man, ” Bledsoe said. “I was doing a lot of yoga this summer, and the biggest thing I took from that was playing free, easy in mind. If you see me on the court, I am always closing my eyes, taking a deep breath. Just to stay calm and collected.”
He will close his eyes and take a breath during the national anthem before games, and also during timeouts and in critical situations during the game.
“My teammates have picked up on it, and they always tell me to do it, ” Bledsoe said.
The Suns have seen Bledsoe take several subtle steps forward this season, adjustments that have elevated his game to top point guard status. Bledsoe is more controlled on his drives to the basket, is more more comfortable using his off hand, and is learning the art of slowing down in the pick-and-roll game. Steve Nash used to do that. Steelers halfback LeVeon Bell does it while waiting for a hole to open.
“Eric would finish at the rim and somehow always end up in the front row and miss a lot of layups, ” Watson said of previous years. “He’s still quick, but he does a better job of slowing down his pace within the restricted area to where he is not going 100 miles an hour to where he has to shoot a quick layup. He kind of finds the angle, sometimes hangs in the air, uses his body to throw off the defender and finishes gracefully.
“He’s finishing better on the left. He’s very balanced on each side of the court. It is very difficult to ice him, to keep him on the sideline and force him to go left. He is great going left.”
Bledsoe’s patience in the pick-and-roll was never more evident than when he scored seven straight Suns points in the final 74 seconds to turn a tie game into a 102-95 victory in Dallas last Thursday.
Bledsoe used a P.J. Tucker screen to make an open three-pointer, starting the flurry that broke a tie at 93, then worked this way and that around two Tyson Chandler screens before hitting a mid-range jumper that made it 98-93. He made two free throws after being fouled the next time down the court, and that was that.
“To me, (Memphis point) Mike Conley is the best in the NBA at being patient with that extra dribble, ” Watson said. “He’ll come off the pick, survey, take one more dibble, cross it back and take another screen for a re-screen, and pull up for the easier shot.
“You can teach it and you can teach it, but it comes from experience, to actually feel it and live it. If you watch the end of that game, Bledsoe was totally at peace with his game. It looked like drill work. He never rushed. He never panicked. When he shot it and released it, you tell he was very confident in every move.”