Miles Bridges is More Than Just a Dunker

In half a season in the NBA, Miles Bridges has become a human highlight reel on his way to the Slam Dunk Contest. Can he become an all-around player for the Charlotte Hornets?

It’s hard to look away from Miles Bridges. Taking your eyes off of him, even for a moment, means running the risk of missing something like this:

In just a few months in the league, Bridges has established himself as one of the league’s best dunkers. While his high-flying has earned him some recognition and a spot in the league’s Slam Dunk Contest, it hasn’t quite translated to an outstanding season for Bridges himself or his team. The Charlotte Hornets are still hovering around the bottom of the Eastern Conference playoff picture, and their future depends in large part on Bridges’ development as an all-around player. His current playstyle gets attention, but it’s not enough to consistently earn wins.

The 20-year-old still has plenty of time to grow, of course. And looking back at what he’s already done, there’s hope for the future. 

Hitting the Rookie Wall

Early returns on Bridges’ prospects as a player were promising. He averaged 17 and 7.6 rebounds per game over two seasons at Michigan State, proving himself capable of playing both on and off the ball. His athleticism was certainly on display during his time in East Lansing, but so was his shooting stroke: he hit over 37 percent of his three-pointers across two seasons.

After being drafted in the lottery of the 2018 NBA Draft, the rookie forward averaged around 15 points and eight rebounds over five games in the Las Vegas Summer League. This dropped to eight points per game in the month of October once the regular season began. As the season has progressed, both his playing time and production have waned; Bridges ran directly into the dreaded rookie wall. He’s not quite handcuffed to the bench the way Malik Monk was in the middle of last season, but his role has certainly diminished. 

MONTH MIN PTS FG% 3P%
October 18.9     8.0     60.5     43.8    
November 20.8 7.2 46.4 29.4
December 19.0 6.4 37.7 34.3
January 17.4 5.5 41.9 15.4
February       17.5 5.7 43.3 45.5

The primary reason for that is his effect on the offense. The jump shot he showed off in college has largely abandoned him; he’s hitting around 31 percent from behind the arc and just 30 from mid-range, per Cleaning the Glass. That shooting allows opponents to play off him and clog the lane – a problem worsened by the fact that Bridges is logging most of his minutes alongside backup-heavy rotations with non-shooters like Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Tony Parker. Without consistent threats from the outside to worry about, defenses can focus on clogging the paint and protecting the rim, limiting Bridges’ ability to attack the basket

The numbers tell the same story – the Hornets are about 5 points worse per 100 possessions on offense when Bridges is on the floor. Again, some of that is dependent on lineups; Bridges has shared the floor with Kemba Walker in less than half of his minutes, and the offense performs close to league average when the pair plays together as opposed to dreadful when Bridges is without the All-Star point guard.

Breaking Through the Wall

Unlike many first-year players, the former Spartan has actually been a relatively successful defender. He utilizes his speed and athleticism well on that end, becoming a pest to opponents. That’s especially true in isolation, where he ranks in the 100th percentile by allowing just .364 points per possession, according to Synergy Sports. 

He’s not perfect, of course. Like most rookies, his attention lapses at times and his awareness is occasionally lacking. Plus, he struggles a bit with big men – in the bottom 10 percentile against post-ups, per Synergy. But with back-to-the-basket play less important than it has been in years past, Bridges can get by as a combo forward. And with another year or two of NBA weight training under his belt, he could combine his already-great rim protection with the strength to deal with the occasional post-up.

Besides, his offense is starting to bounce back. His shooting stroke is returning and opening the floor for the team. And his touch around the basket has gotten softer; he’s still got the athleticism to finish at the rim, but he’s developing some other options in the paint. He doesn’t have the chops to be a primary ball handler, but attacking the rim like this is within his wheelhouse, especially as he gets increasingly comfortable with the professional game.

Shots like this one are an invaluable tool for a player like Bridges. Even if opposing defenses can keep him from getting all the way to the rim, he can stop short and get a shot off. If he can combine these kinds of moves around the rim with a more consistent jumper, he’ll become a legitimate threat on the offensive end.

Moving Forward

When Bridges was drafted, it immediately made sense to see him in a Marvin Williams role in Charlotte: a combo forward that shoots the three and plays good defense. That’s still a reasonable possibility, and by no means would it be a failure. But in just half a season, and one that hasn’t even been particularly outstanding, Bridges has shown that he can be much more. He has an off-the-bounce flair that Williams has never shown during his career as a Hornet. The latter has been an important piece in Buzz City; Bridges has the chance to be a vital player moving forward.

There are still questions surrounding him. Whether he can consistently be a third option on offense is still unclear, and he probably won’t have consistent opportunities to prove himself while the team still has so much money committed to Nicolas Batum. His ability to attack the rim will always be limited by the ceiling of his ball-handling, something he's never been great at. 

It’s entirely possible that Bridges levels out as a valuable bench piece and below-average starter. There's also a chance that he can become a valuable piece in Charlotte. It's too soon to say what will happen moving forward. But Bridges' development could change the future of the franchise.

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