HOUSTON — Eric Bledsoe wants you to think about him. He just isn't quite sure how he wants you to think of him.
The Los Angeles Clippers' dynamic 23-year-old combo guard, who will participate in the 2013 Sprite Slam Dunk Contest on State Farm All-Star Saturday Night this evening, considered it as he sat in a chair in his Houston hotel room on Friday afternoon. He leaned forward, elbows on his knees, rubbing his arms and thinking. What does he want fans to know about Eric Bledsoe after his performance on Saturday night?
"That he … he's a great person," Bledsoe tells me. "That he's a real … hmm. It's kind of … let's see.
"I don't know," he decides with a soft laugh.
In some ways, that's precisely why the dunk contest might be the most important night in Bledsoe's NBA career to date. Not only will it offer him an opportunity to introduce himself to millions of casual fans who might not be familiar with his three-year body of work, but it will also give him a chance to define himself independent of the context of team concepts and star teammates — a chance to stand alone, to bear his own standard, by rising up and over everyone and everything around him.
It's kind of odd to think that a player as talented as Bledsoe — a pitbull on rocket skates capable of harassing opposing offensive players the full 94-by-50, protecting the rim (just ask Dwyane Wade) and applying pipe-bursting pressure that turns defense into offense and fast breaks into highlights — hasn't really stood out. But it's true, if understandable given the context of his college and pro careers.
After establishing himself at A.H. Parker High School in Birmingham, Ala., as a top-25 national prospect and a the No. 3-rated point guard recruit in the class of 2009, Bledsoe narrowed his college choices down to two schools — Kentucky and Memphis. He chose the Wildcats, hoping to become the next lead guard to star at the controls of coach John Calipari's dribble-drive motion offense. Two weeks later, Calipari scored an even larger recruiting coup, signing No. 1-rated '09 point guard John Wall. The signing put the cherry on top of what was then considered perhaps the best recruiting class of all time; it also moved Bledsoe to shooting guard, off the ball and, to a large extent, out of the spotlight enjoyed by the likes of top options Wall and Cousins.
Still, he performed well in his lone collegiate year, showing enough talent and tools to be selected with the 18th pick in the first round of the 2010 NBA draft by the Oklahoma City Thunder, who then flipped Bledsoe to the Clippers in exchange for a future first-round pick. Bledsoe would join 2009 No. 1 overall pick Blake Griffin, healthy after missing his initial rookie season due to a knee injury, but he'd also play behind incumbent starters at both guard positions in Baron Davis and Eric Gordon. After making relatively little impact in 81 games for a lottery-bound Clippers team, Bledsoe looked forward to making a big leap in his sophomore season ... and then came the lockout, and the import of veterans Chris Paul and Chauncey Billups to man the backcourt, and a torn left meniscus that kept him out for the first month of the season.
He re-acclimated slowly after coming back and found it difficult to crack coach Vinny Del Negro's rotation, but earned some more minutes toward the end of the season, after Billups was sidelined. Then came the playoffs, where he blossomed in L.A.'s two-round run, first eating up Memphis Grizzlies point guard Mike Conley in Round 1 and then, with both Paul and Griffin hobbled by injuries against the San Antonio Spurs, frequently seeming to be the Clippers' most active, energetic and impactful player. He seemed poised for a breakout campaign heading into this season ... only to watch the Clippers make a slew of offseason signings, including guards Willie Green and Jamal Crawford, to add depth to their bench and crowd their rotations.
Bledsoe has played in all 56 Clipper games this season, but he's still only getting about 22 minutes a night. He's often been good, and sometimes breathtaking, in those minutes, but he's still primarily, in the eyes of the casual NBA fan, a second-unit player getting backup minutes on a team with a pair of stars and a very good bench. He's a gifted character actor in an ensemble cast, rather than the star of his own show. As in Lexington, so in Hollywood.
But not so on All-Star Saturday. On Saturday, in the event everyone will be watching, there'll only be one guy in a Clippers uniform, and it won't be a guy with a lengthy commercial reel. It'll be a guy with a quiet demeanor and a loud game, getting a chance to shine a special light that's too often hidden under a bushel.
On Saturday, Eric Bledsoe gets his chance to be the man. That's got to feel cool, right?
"I mean, if you look at it that way," Bledsoe said.
Well, do you look at it that way, Eric?
"Playing along with Chris and Blake especially — All-Stars, great teammates — you want to let everybody know what you can do or whatnot, you know," Bledsoe said. "So I think it's a great experience, to kind of step out of their shadows a little bit."
So ... it sounds like you kind of do view it that way, then, right?
"I feel like this weekend is pretty much about me," Bledsoe said. "Like you said, man, playing with Chris and Blake, they get all the attention, where you pretty much can't see what other guys on the team be doing. So I think it's a pretty good experience, where it's just about me this weekend."
That won't be true on Sunday, of course — with Griffin and Paul making their second straight starting appearances for the Western Conference squad — CP3's role as the West's All-Star Saturday Night captain aside, it'll definitely be true on Saturday, when Bledsoe takes to the court eager to accomplish two goals: to have fun, and to win.
To do the latter, the power-packed point guard will have to take a different approach to dunking than he normally does. During a game, as Bledsoe explained it, he views the chance to throw one down as a chance to "try to get the momentum to our side so we can get our chemistry and everything going."
"A dunk during the game is just to get everybody pumped up, so everybody can feel like we're going to win this game or we're going to blow this team out or whatnot," he said with a laugh. "[…] During the game, it's more of a mean, nasty, 'you're gonna take the rim home' kind of feeling."
In a competition like Saturday night, though, the intent changes a bit.
"You want to do, like, acrobat-type, athletic [stuff] because, especially for me, people want to see how high I can jump as a shorter person in the contest," he said.
Listed at 6-foot-1 (a listing that seems a bit generous), Bledsoe is between five and eight inches shorter than his opponents. But he doesn't shy away from the height thing — in fact, like Spud Webb and Nate Robinson before him, he's planning to use it to his advantage.
"I think when you're short, you're always going to be the fan favorite," he said. "Because the average [fan's] height is probably your height, so everybody wants to see you dunk the ball, and how high you can jump, so they can be like, 'He's my height, how's he doing that and I can't?' That's probably a good feeling, to be a fan favorite."
It's a feeling Bledsoe hopes to have tonight, and one he plans to elicit by bringing out some heavy artillery early. He has said he's got his first two dunks planned out, but won't share any details about them; he's told multiple reporters that one of his favorite Dunk Contest memories was Vince Carter's legendary 2000 performance, and claims he can do Vince's arm-in-the-rim dunk, but he's downplayed expectations that he'll break it out on Saturday ("I’m short — I don’t want to break my arm").
Whatever those first two dunks wind up being, Bledsoe made it clear that in his mind, he's putting his best foot forward to try to make an impression early.
"I feel like I've got to come off strong, do my best two dunks early, so I can win the fans over early, and let them know they can expect a good show after," he said. "If I do save these dunks for last, they probably won't even get used, so I've got to come off strong."
The stronger he comes out, and the longer he sticks around on Saturday, the more fans will get to know the third-year spark-plug out of SEC country who can be pure dynamite if he just gets the chance to ignite. If the contest gets fierce enough, they're likely to learn what he eventually decided was the one thing he wants every fan to know about Eric Bledsoe after this weekend.
"That he's a competitor," Bledsoe says firmly. "That he wants to win everything that he competes in. That's about it."