No player in the NBA has made a bigger leap this season than Eric Bledsoe, the Clippers third-year guard who has been dubbed “Mini-LeBron.”

However, his improvement has been somewhat hidden by Vinny Del Negro’s bizarre substitution patterns as well as a Los Angeles Clippers' team that goes 10 deep even without Chauncey Billups and Grant Hill. Bledsoe averages a little under 20 minutes a game, but in that time, he’s playing like a future All-Star. As a result, the Clippers could soon be faced with a salary-crunch situation similar to what happened with James Harden and Oklahoma City.

Despite being a five-star recruit coming out of high school, the uber-athletic Bledsoe has slipped under the national radar for most of his career. He was only the third biggest recruit in John Calipari’s first season at Kentucky, behind John Wall and DeMarcus Cousins. Once he got to Lexington, he was a clear No. 4 in the team’s pecking order after Wall, Cousins and Patrick Patterson, all of whom went in the lottery.

Bledsoe averaged 11 points, three rebounds and three steals on 46/38/67 shooting; respectable numbers for a freshman, but not enough to indicate he could transition immediately to the next level. Many were surprised when he declared for the 2010 NBA Draft, where he wound up falling all the way to the No. 18 overall pick, which the Clippers acquired from the Thunder in a draft-day deal. Nor did he walk into an ideal situation with the Clippers: thrust into a starting role as a rookie after the Baron Davis trade, then having his minutes cut significantly in his second year with three veteran PG’s -- Billups, Chris Paul and Mo Williams -- ahead of him.

The talent, though, was always there. At 6’1 195, Bledsoe is a eye-popping bundle of fast-twitch muscles who is almost impossible to stay in front of, especially in the open-court. Just as importantly, he has a monstrous 6’7.5 wingspan, which allows him to play much bigger than his size. So even though he has the height of a pure PG, his length and athleticism allows him to play as a SG, which he did at Kentucky.

This season, his skill level has begun to catch up with his athletic ability. He has always been lethal around the rim, but he has more confidence in his jumper this year, allowing him to finish on pull-up shots and be more effective from the charity stripe. He’s gone from shooting 39% from the floor to 50%, 64% from the foul-line to 79% and more than doubled his number of free throw attempts. While he still struggles with long two pointers, he’s improved his three-point shot (from 20% to 33%) and become more adept at attacking open spots on the floor instead of settling for jumpers.

Improving his offensive efficiency has made him a stunningly productive player. Now that he has a functional jumper, there are no real holes in his game. Despite spending a lot of floor time with Ronny Turiaf and Lamar Odom, Bledsoe is averaging 2.7 assists on 1.8 turnovers. Like Dwyane Wade, another undersized guard who uses an oversized wingspan to impact the game in a myriad ways, Bledsoe also rebounds (2.8), blocks shots (0.7) and picks up steals (1.5). Per-36 minutes, he’s averaging 19 points, five rebounds, five assists, three steals and 1.5 blocks. That’s good for a PER of 22.4, the second-best on the Clippers, behind only Paul.

And while it’s easy to dismiss those numbers as mere projections, for the most part, per-36 averages do a good job of estimating what a player would do with more playing time. If anything, Bledsoe’s numbers are understated, because he often shares the backcourt with Jamal Crawford, a ball-dominant player who makes Bledsoe spot up in the corner, the weakest part of his game. Like most young PG’s, he would struggle with turnovers if given the chance to dominate the ball for 35+ minutes a night, but he’s more than earned the opportunity to do so and grow from the mistakes he makes.

Unfortunately, that’s unlikely to occur with the Clippers. Del Negro isn’t a very flexible coach when it comes to player’s roles: he likes to have a “1” and a “2” on the court at all times. That’s why, even with Billups out and Crawford coming off the bench as a sixth-man, he’s been giving Willie Green 20+ minutes a night as the starting SG. That, in turn, severely limits the number of minutes Bledsoe can play, since Paul receives the vast majority of time at PG. So even though Bledsoe can handle the vast majority of NBA shooting guards defensively, he receives about as much playing time as Green, who has a PER of 10.8. It’s basketball malpractice, plain and simple.

On a side note, this is why I’ve always preferred Deron Williams to Paul, despite Paul’s superior statistics. Even a coach as unimaginative as Del Negro would slide Williams (6’3 210 with a 6’6 wingspan) to the shooting guard position in order to free up minutes for Bledsoe. The importance of lineup flexibility is severely underrated by most fans and analysts: would you rather have a backcourt of Paul and Green or Bledsoe and Williams? After all, how can Paul make a player better if the guy can’t play with him?

Paul is only 27 years old and is line to get a max contract at the end of the season. When you add that to Blake Griffin’s max deal, DeAndre Jordan’s $10 million a year contract as well as all the money given to the veterans they’ve added to their bench, the Clippers payroll is set to explode. Donald Sterling has opened up his wallet in recent years, but with the punitive luxury tax penalties in the new CBA, is he really going to want to give another big contract to a guy getting 20 minutes a night? Bledsoe will be a restricted FA in 2014, and if I’m a team with cap space, he’s at the top of my priority list.

Last summer, I caused a bit of a stir when I asked Russell Westbrook whether he thought Harden, soon to be an RFA, was a max player at a press conference. Many people looked at his per-game statistics and thought I was crazy, but if you looked at his per-36 averages, you knew he was in line to break out if given a bigger opportunity. I was saying that as far back as 2011, when I dubbed Harden (five years, $80 million), Ty Lawson (four years, $48 million) and Jrue Holiday (four years, $41 million) as three of the NBA’s most underrated players. Lawson and Holiday’s contracts are near the floor of what Bledsoe could make on the open market.

Since the moment he came to Los Angeles, rumors have flown about Paul’s impending free agency. However, as a superstar in a big market with elite talent around him, there isn’t much of a reason for him to leave. And while established stars get the page views, the best bet in free agency for franchises not located on South Beach, Madison Avenue or Ventura Boulevard is a young player with the talent to be one who just needs an opportunity. If the Clippers aren’t going to clear out money and minutes for Eric Bledsoe, someone else should.