Originally Published: March 17, 2017 1:26 a.m.
PHOENIX — The Phoenix Suns are benching Eric Bledsoe, arguably their best player, for the final 15 games of the season.
General manager Ryan McDonough said the decision was made to give the 27-year-old point guard some rest and further expand playing time for the team’s younger players, particularly rookie point guard Tyler Ulis.
In an interview with The Associated Press on Thursday, McDonough said Bledsoe is healthy and the decision had little to do with the player’s history of knee problems.
The Suns, at 22-46, have the third-worst record in the NBA.
McDonough knows the Bledsoe decision will be seen as a sign the team is looking to lose more games to improve its draft status but said that the young players have already played well and been competitive in expanded roles.
Phoenix already had benched center Tyson Chandler and guard Brandon Knight since the All-Star break to give the young players more time on the court.
“Coming out of the All-Star break we weren’t sure how it would look and how our young guys would play,” McDonough said, “and we think they played pretty well overall. Guys like Tyler Ulis, Derrick Jones Jr. and Alan Williams — those three in particular — have stepped up. We kind of wanted to keep pushing that a little bit over the last 14-15 games.”
Bledsoe and Devin Booker lead the Suns in scoring at 21.1 points per game each. Bledsoe’s scoring average and 6.3 assists per game are career highs.
“Eric obviously had a terrific year for us,” McDonough said.
“He’s one of the few guys in the league that boasted the kind of numbers he did across the board.”
Bledsoe’s style of play factored in the decision.
“We track a lot of sports science type measurements in terms of physio load, the bio-mechanical load, all that kind of stuff and Eric’s up among the league leaders in that,” McDonough said. “That’s a complicated way of saying he played really hard and carried a big load for us both physically and emotionally.”
Bledsoe’s only public reaction was a sad-faced emoji on his twitter account.
“He handled it the way we thought he’d handle it,” McDonough said. “He’s a competitive guy. He wants to play. He wants to be out there with his teammates and that’s the reaction that we would expect him to have and want him to have.”
But, McDonough said, he thinks Bledsoe “understands what’s best for the organization long-term, probably what’s best for him in the long term, and in the short term it’s what’s best for the young players giving those guys an opportunity to play.
“I think he gets all that and has been an unbelievable leader this year. He’s an organization-first guy and I think he’ll continue to be that.”
The move by no means indicates Bledsoe’s days with the Suns are numbered, McDonough said.
“I think it’s more likely that we try to add talented players in the 19-, 27-, 28-year-old age range to play alongside Eric and Devin and the rest of our young core.”
With Bledsoe on the bench, the Suns’ starting lineup in Wednesday night’s loss to Sacramento had an average age of 21, the youngest ever for the Suns.
“I don’t know how you’d get a much younger one in league history,” McDonough said. “Most teams don’t have that many young players to put out there, especially at different positions.”
Ulis, a second-round draft pick out of Kentucky who is listed optimistically at 5-foot-10, had 11 points and a career-high 13 assists with just one turnover against the Kings.
Knight might have played but told the team before the game he had back spasms. Whether Knight plays the rest of the season seems uncertain.
“He said his back was bothering him last night,” McDonough said, “so we’ll see how that goes going forward. At the same time, I think if anything, it should create more minutes, more opportunities for younger players.”
Bledsoe, Chandler and Knight are the three highest-paid players on the team.