Why Eric Bledsoe has fit in so well with Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Bucks

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BOSTON – Eric Bledsoe isn’t interested in looking back. Not on a tumultuous four-plus year stint with Phoenix. Not on the ugly, two-week stretch that ended it. He wanted out, everyone knew it, and now that he is, he doesn’t see much benefit in rehashing why.

“I’m on this team,” Bledsoe said after the Milwaukee Bucks’ shootaround on Monday. “I’m focused on what we can accomplish here. There’s more to basketball than focusing on all the negative stuff. I’m just trying to think positive and put all that in the past.”

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Milwaukee, too. The Bucks didn’t seem like the likeliest suitor for Bledsoe. Milwaukee had Malcolm Brogdon, the second-round pick turned Rookie of the Year who capably guided the Bucks into the playoffs last season, entrenched as the starter, and a pair of vets (Matthew Dellavedova and Jason Terry) around to back him up. Point guard? They had a few.

Milwaukee saw things differently. Everything the Bucks do is geared toward complementing Giannis Antetokounmpo, and Bledsoe, Bucks officials say, does just that. In assessing the team’s needs, toughness, athleticism, speed and quickness were at the top of the list. They eyeballed a few players. Boston’s Terry Rozier was one. Bledsoe was another. Bledsoe was available. The Bucks had an asset the Suns would take (Greg Monroe) and a draft pick (a protected first-rounder) they wanted. Done deal.

So far, the deal has worked out. The Bucks are 8-4 with Bledsoe in the lineup. As Bledsoe’s conditioning has improved, so has his game. He scored 18 points against Boston, connecting on 66.7 percent of his shots and 50 percent of his threes. In the five games before that, Bledsoe averaged 22.6 points on 52 percent shooting, including 46.9 percent from beyond the 3-point line.

Eric Bledsoe drives past Kyrie Irving on Monday night. (Getty Images)
Eric Bledsoe drives past Kyrie Irving on Monday night. (Getty Images)

A common criticism of the deal was that Bledsoe, a ball-dominant guard, could kill the Bucks’ ball movement, while also taking the ball out of Antetokounmpo’s hands. Again, Milwaukee saw it differently. The Bucks believed Antetokounmpo — an excellent cutter — would benefit from another ball handler on the floor, and the team would benefit from Bledsoe’s attack-first mindset.

The offense has been good. The defense has been even better. The Bucks are impossibly long, and Bledsoe — with a wingspan a tick under 6-foot-8 — fits right in. Boston, nay, Kyrie Irving buried Milwaukee on Monday, but in the 11 games prior the defense has been effective. Opponents turned the ball over 18.5 times per game during that stretch, an NBA high, which the Bucks turned into nearly 21 points a game. Milwaukee is still getting gashed from beyond the 3-point line — opponents are shooting an NBA-best 40 percent from beyond the arc against the Bucks — but Bledsoe’s ability to defend on the ball and wrestle through screens has proved valuable.

Leaning forward in a courtside chair on Monday, Bledsoe spoke like a player just trying to fit in. He gushed about his new team (“It’s a great group of guys, great coaching staff,” Bledsoe said.), raved about Antetokounmpo (“I didn’t know he was this talented. His energy — he plays every play as hard as he can.”), while expressing relief at getting “a fresh start.”

He praised Brogdon, too, and for Milwaukee the dynamic between the two remains a delicate situation. Brogdon has admitted his confidence has wavered since Bledsoe arrived. His field-goal percentage has dropped five points since being shifted to the bench, and his 3-point percentage has dipped by nearly eight points. Brogdon has been professional throughout though, which has prevented any public distractions.

Asked on Monday if he had spoken to Brogdon about his evolving role, Bledsoe was diplomatic.

“It wasn’t any type of conversation,” Bledsoe said. “At the same time, I’m not trying to take his spot or show that I’m better. It’s a team thing. We need him as much as everybody needs each other. He’s one of the biggest pieces of this thing. What he brings to the game, I can’t bring. He comes off the bench and plays at high intensity. Some of the games we won, he played great in them.

“It’s all about one goal, and that’s to win the championship. It’s not about, ‘He took my spot or he’s better than me,’ or, ‘How much does he get paid or how much do I get paid?’ It’s about winning. Winning solves everything.”

Bledsoe is excited about his opportunity in Milwaukee, even while admitting he has a long way to go. The Bucks’ system has been a culture shock (“I’m used to run-and-gun,” Bledsoe said. “This is a lot of half court.”) and he is inching toward being in top shape. He says he loves the versatility of Milwaukee’s roster (“The more playmakers on the court, the better.”) and is eager to play for a winner.

As for Phoenix, Bledsoe won’t say much. He grinned when reminded that Marcus Morris — a former Suns teammate — still takes issue with the team, but Bledsoe says his Phoenix experience was educational.

“Playing on that team showed me a lot,” Bledsoe said. “Phoenix definitely helped me grow. It was never a negative playing on that team. They helped me grow in a lot of aspects. Even though we were losing, I was growing at the same time, the team was growing. It helped me [with] the rest of my career.”

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