The Los Angeles Clippers' arrival at the Verizon Center tonight will mark the first time that former college teammates John Wall and Eric Bledsoe square off as starters. An injury to Chris Paul has propelled Bledsoe into the Clippers' starting lineup, while Wall is now a starter himself despite still being on a minutes limit post-knee injury.
The two players certainly are close from their time at Kentucky, and there will definitely be plenty of on-court trash-talking. For us, the fans, though, this will be an interesting glimpse into two similar players that have occupied very different roles in their short NBA careers.
In a lot of ways, Wall and Bledsoe are the same guy. Both are athletically-gifted point guards that only need a little bit of polish to their games to be successful. Both function best in the open floor and are somewhat limited in the half-court by their ineffective jump shots. The only difference: Wall's court vision is his best skill, while Bledsoe's dogged defense sets him apart.
But their journey in the NBA could not be more different. Wall, as the No. 1 pick of a struggling franchise, has been tasked with lifting up a roster of fellow young players and ill-fitted parts. His development has slowed because the burden has been too great. Instead of his strengths amplifying other players' weaknesses, those other players' weaknesses have stifled his strengths. How much blame you assign Wall himself for this depends on your perspective. Clearly, he merits some, but the situation hasn't helped.
Bledsoe, meanwhile, has been shackled simply because he hasn't received an opportunity to be set free. Paul has always been there, relegating Bledsoe to spot duty off the bench. In some ways, this has helped Bledsoe play to his strengths in a winning atmosphere. We don't focus on his lack of jump-shooting and out-of-control drives because his team has more than enough firepower to compensate for his mistakes. Nevertheless, there's a wide-standing belief that Bledsoe eventually needs to go elsewhere to grow as a player.
Of course, Bledsoe now has his chance to shine with Paul's injury. So far, though, results have been mixed. The Clippers are struggling, and Bledsoe himself hasn't been able to impact the game as much against starters. Defenders are going under every ball screen, forcing Bledsoe to beat them from the outside. They've also used Bledsoe's man to help on other bigger offensive threats, and Bledsoe still hasn't figured out how to make himself a threat in these situations. It's still a small sample, though, so one shouldn't write the book on Bledsoe's abilities just yet.
Bottom line: while this is a battle between two very close friends, it's also a study in contrasts with respect to developing a talented, raw, young point guard. Bledsoe and Wall are so similar, and yet, they are also so different.