Eric Bledsoe will celebrate his 28th birthday on Saturday.
Bucks Nation might want to throw him a party.
After all, Bledsoe just might be the best Bucks’ trade acquisition since way back in 1998 when they obtained Sam Cassell from the New Jersey Nets.
Cassell instantly alleviated the scoring load off the Bucks’ two stars Ray Allen and Glenn Allen and was arguably the biggest reason (18.2 points and 7.6 assists) the Bucks advanced to the 2001 Eastern Conference Finals before falling in Game 7 to Philadelphia after NBA officials mysteriously decided to upgrade a foul on Scott Williams that forced him to miss the decisive game.
But Bledsoe’s arrival in Milwaukee is somewhat similar to Cassell’s. The Bucks now have a certifiable star in Giannis Antetokounmpo and a fringe All-Star caliber swingman in Khris Middleton.
To those who have monitored the Bucks this season, it was painfully obvious they would struggle if the Greek Freak or Middleton struggled. That’s not the case now.
With the explosive scoring Bledsoe on board, the Bucks’ fate no longer rests on whether Antetokounmpo and Middleton have monster scoring outings.
Through 13 games with the Bucks, Bledsoe is averaging 17.1 points per game. He has also been remarkably consistent. In the last seven games, he hasn’t produced fewer than 18 points.
What’s more, Bledsoe is showing signs of rectifying the biggest flaw in is game: 3-point shooting. He has converted on 11 of 24 treys in the last five games – an outstanding 46 percent. That is a marked improvement over his career 33 percent percentage.
But Bledsoe has provided the Bucks with more than a prime-scorer. Just like Cassell was with the Bucks, Bledsoe brings a noticeable air of confidence, not to mention some hard-nosed toughness.
“I’m pretty sure people know how tough I am,’’ the solidly-constructed 6-foot-1 Bledsoe said. “Ever since I started playing, I always played with a hunger, with an edge. I love the game of basketball, and I always love to win.’’
Bledsoe, who grew up in Birmingham, Ala., said he modeled his game after another highly-intense, highly motivated player who went on to become a hall of famer: Allen Iverson.
Bledsoe said the 6-foot Iverson showed him there was a place for so-called undersized players in a big man’s game.
“I just loved the way Allen Iverson played,’’ Bledsoe said. “He’s my size and he was able to compete with the taller guys. He always held his own. That’s the one thing that stood out about him to me: no matter his size, he competed. He had a big heart.’’
Bledsoe said he got the opportunity to meet Iverson, who was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2016, and it was almost a surreal momen.
“It was a thrill meeting him, a big thrill,’’ Bledsoe said with a big smile.
Bucks center John Henson said he wasn’t surprised Bledsoe picked Iverson as his basketball idol, saying they have much in common as players.
“Yeah, I can see that,’’ Henson said. “He (Bledsoe) is a tough dude. Defensively, he gets after it. And, offensively, he’s got that mentality to finish against the trees.’’
Middleton also said he has noticed Bledsoe’s tenacity and how he isn’t unafraid of mixing it up with the tall timber in the paint.
“Definitely. He plays with confidence, with swagger,’’ Middleton said. “It’s like he feels he’s one of the toughest guys out there. We needed a player like that.’’
But the Bucks especially needed a flat-out, consistent scorer, along with someone who doesn’t shy away from taking the big shot. Already, Bledsoe has come through with a couple of crucial late-game baskets.
“He’s good, man,’’ Henson said. “It’s no secret. He averaged 20 points before in Phoenix and he was a big part of that Clippers team when he was a rookie before that.
“He’s a hooper: He can shoot, he can score, pass … I think we’re 9-3 since he’s been here. A guy like that is going to help anybody.’’
Photo by BILL TENNESSEN