Mikal Bridges is Still a Top Rookie in a Loaded Draft Class

Mikal Bridges often gets unfairly lost among a loaded draft class. While he may not consistently light up the box score, he always executes the little things at a very high level. Bridges has proven that he is a prototypical 3-and-D wing.

The team building mindset in today’s NBA is all about collecting and grouping together stars with little regard for how the rest of the roster will fit together. While this works and makes sense for some teams, the indifference that is shown towards role players is a tragic mistake. The term role player is often seen as a slight, but it shouldn't be. It is a term of admiration. Being a great role player doesn’t mean that a player isn’t good, it means that they do most of their damage away from the ball, they perfect the little things, and they are an absolute necessity for team success. Mikal Bridges has all of the tools to be one of the leagues very best 3-and-D role players.

Going into last year's draft, I was very high on Bridges (fourth on my draft guide). I believed that he had the capability to walk in and help a contender win on day one. I was thrilled when Philadelphia drafted Bridges as his defensive prowess and ability to operate away from the ball seemed like a perfect fit. This sense elation quickly faded once he was traded to Phoenix. This deflation in excitement wasn’t due to any bias against the Suns. The deflation was simply because he didn't seem to be a great fit.

My concerns since draft day have been realized. Bridges hasn’t had a bad year, but he has struggled to get consistent minutes on a poorly constructed team who is overloaded with wings. The Suns don’t have a good point guard despite having a roster with four small forwards that can all play substantial minutes for a team in Mikal Bridges, Josh Jackson, Kelly Oubre Jr, and T.J. Warren. Despite the nonsensical roster construction, the poorly defined role, and the lack of team success, Bridges has still exhibited all the tools that make him one of the most promising 3-and-D players in the league.

Offense

Due to Bridge’s lack of consistent ball-handling ability, it was pretty clear that his offensive impact would come away from the ball. He projected as a good shooter at the NBA level so if he was willing to fit into this off-ball role his offensive game would theoretically develop nicely. So far that has been the case as Bridges has shot 35 percent from three. Bridges shot distribution has been ideal for a 3-and-D role player as 87 percent of his shots have either come at the rim or from three. Even more encouraging is the fact that 49.2 percent of his shot attempts have been considered open threes (defender is four feet or further). Bridges understands his role and is giving himself the best chance of scoring by not forcing ill-advised shot attempts.

Spot Up Shooting

Players that operate most of the game without the ball get a lot of their scoring opportunities on spot-up shot attempts. Per Synergy, Bridges is scoring 1.033 points per possession on spot-up shot attempts which puts him in the 61st percentile; better than Otto Porter Jr, TJ Warren, and Kyle Kuzma. Some of the best traits of good spot-up shooters are a consistent shooting form (duh) and the ability to find open areas on the perimeter. There are plenty of NBA players that have a great form but don’t give themselves the best opportunity because they fail to recognize the rotations they need to make. The fact that Bridges has already demonstrated his ability to find these openings as a rookie is encouraging going forward.

In the below clip we see how Bridges relocates in order to make himself open. The play is designed for Bridges to run a dribble hand-off with Trevor Ariza who is then set up for a pick-and-roll with Deandre Ayton. As Ariza drives, Bridges’s man collapses in the paint and loses track of Bridges. Instead of staying on the elbow, Bridges relocates to the top of the arc. This gives Ariza a man to pass to out of a failed drive and gives Bridges more time and space to shoot because his defender already lost track of him.

 

Here we have another example of how a simple movement of ten feet makes all the difference. Devin Booker is running a pick-and-roll with Richaun Holmes at the top of the arc with Bridges positioned in the corner for a kick out. Bridges recognizes that the play is getting blown up almost immediately and begins his relocation out of the corner. Since his defender rotates to the paint as Holmes rolls, Bridges rotates up to the elbow. This gives Booker an easier and quicker pass out of the double team and gives Bridges' initial defender less time to recover.

 

Cutting

Bridges' off-ball movement isn’t only useful on the perimeter. Bridges is one of the most effective cutters in the league. He averages 1.469 points per possession on cuts which puts him in the 83rd percentile. Similarly to relocating on the perimeter, Bridges’s effective cuts come when he recognizes that his defender is out of position and there is an opportunity for an easy basket.

In the below clip we see how Bridges initially relocates for a three but then cuts hard toward the hoop. Booker is running a simple pick and roll with Ayton. Once Booker initiates his drive, Bridges simply relocates to the top of the arc and the open space that Booker just vacated. Booker picks up his drive on the lower block and is in trouble. Instead of staying complacent at the top of the arc, Bridges recognizes that his defender is susceptible to a back door cut because he is fixated on Booker. Since Ayton never rolled hard to the rim, the paint is unoccupied by any defenders, leaving Bridges with an easy layup.

 

Bridges' ability to cut and find ways to the rim doesn’t come from just broken plays. He also does a good job improvising on set plays. The below video is a clear example of this. The play is designed for Jamal Crawford to drive to his right while Bridges uses two back screens to get open in the corner. The intended result is for Crawford to drive past his man for either a layup or a pass to Bridges in the corner. This doesn’t work as planned because Robert Covington cuts off the drive which forces Crawford to cut back towards the middle. As Bridges comes off the second screen, he looks for the pass but sees Crawford is struggling to shake Covington. Instead of staying in the corner as the play was designed, Bridges notices the wide open paint and continues his movement to cut towards the rim. He bails out Crawford and gets an easy layup.

 

Bridges' skill set doesn’t suggest that he will ever be a ball dominant scorer and that’s perfectly fine. He has a high basketball IQ and finds the open spaces on the floor. His ability to relocate and focus on efficient attempts is key for his team’s success. This unselfish mindset can be contagious. Instead of worrying about the number of his attempts, Bridges focuses on finding high-quality scoring opportunities.

Defense

Coming out of Villanova, Bridges was one of the best defenders in the country. Usually, young players struggle defensively but Bridges has performed at a high level. This sounds ludicrous because the Suns’ defensive rating with him on the floor is 109.7 but this is largely a team stat and can be incredibly misleading, especially with teams that are as bad as the Suns. Bridges hasn’t struggled defensively in his rookie season because he did stay in college longer than most lottery picks. He developed a high level of awareness and fundamentals that he implements every game. He also uses his length and lateral quickness to stay in position and disrupt opponents. The defense we’ve seen from Bridges this year is not only surprising but also really exciting for what he will be going forward.

Steals

An obvious mark of a player’s defensive impact is their number of steals and deflections. In some cases, this can be misleading because it just means that a player is more willing to gamble, not that they are actually a good defender. That isn’t the case with Bridges. He is an intelligent defender that utilizes his length and positioning to agitate opponents. Per Cleaning the Glass, Bridges has a steal rate of 2.3 percent which puts him in the 93rd percentile among his position. This is even more impressive when juxtaposed to potential Defensive Player of the Year Paul George’s 2.5 percent. Bridges also ranks ninth in the league in total deflections despite playing only 27.8 minutes per game, per NBA stats.

In the below clip we see how tenacious Bridges can be on defense. Bridges does a great job from the very start of this clip just by avoiding the screen twice. After he avoids it the second time, he lulls Spencer Dinwiddie into a false sense of security. Bridges then uses his off hand to reach across Dinwiddie’s body to poke the ball loose for the fast break.

 

When this video is paused at the point Bridges pokes the ball loose, it is evident how dramatic Bridges' wingspan is. Michael Jordan in Space Jam would be jealous.

Mikal Bridges

Bridges is a stifling on-ball defender, but he also wreaks havoc when he isn’t directly guarding the ball handler. Here we see how Bridges disrupts passing lanes. The 76ers try to run a dribble handoff with JJ Redick and Wilson Chandler. As Redick runs over the top, Chandler lazily flips up the ball to Redick instead of handing it to him. Bridges evades the Chandler screen and uses his long arms to poke the ball loose before it lands in Redick’s hands.

Blocks

Bridges' length and positioning generate a lot of opponent turnovers, but also help him alter the opponent’s shot attempts. According to Cleaning the Glass, Bridges is one of the better shot blocking wings with his block rate of .9 percent which places him in the 79th percentile.

Here we see Bridges’s ability to use his length to block shots at the rim and recover even when he gets beat. Bridges is matched up on De’Aaron Fox and positions himself to eliminate the screen that is being set. This forces Fox to drive left into what was supposed to turn into a double team with Ayton. Fox drives straight past Ayton as Ayton makes a bewildering decision to move in the opposite direction. Despite the baffling decision by Ayton, Bridges stays close enough where he blocks Fox’s layup from behind.

 

It isn’t only smaller opponents at the rim who Bridges blocks. Here we see Bridges being posted up by the bigger Jerami Grant. Grant catches the ball in a good spot and begins backing down Bridges. Despite his slighter build, Bridges holds his own and doesn’t lose good guarding position. Grant is known for his length and athleticism so guarding him in the post is no easy feat. Bridges times his jump perfectly and gets a hand on the ball right as Grant is releasing it.

Bridges isn’t the most exciting player and his box scores won’t put you in a state of wonder. He is, however, a very talented player that will be a vital piece on successful teams. His two-way versatility is coveted and scarce in a league full of specialists. He has an eerie sense of where to be on both ends of the floor and is never worried about “getting his”. Unfortunately, his full potential will never be brought to fruition on a team constructed in the fashion of the Phoenix Suns. Their lack of a point guard limits his off-ball capabilities while their plethora of wings hinders his minute distribution. Bridges has a fascinating game to show the league, it might just be a while till we can clearly see it unless the Suns figure out how to build a team.

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