Welcome to the NBA, Mikal Bridges. Following the rookie’s impressive debut on Saturday against the Nuggets — no, I’m not including the 11 seconds he logged in the season opener — Bridges proved exactly why Phoenix made an aggressive move on draft night.
In only 15 minutes of action, Bridges produced 10 points, 4 rebounds, 2 assists, and 2 steals while hitting 50 percent (2/4) of his three-pointers. Bridges also led the Suns in plus-minus with an eye-popping plus-21 in a 28-point blowout loss. Sometimes, plus-minus doesn’t correlate with the eye test, but that definitely wasn’t the case for Bridges versus the Nuggets.
Phoenix was actually down 14 at the start of the second quarter before Bridges checked in. In less than five minutes, Denver’s lead had been cut to only 2 points.
The catalyst behind that run was Bridges. Whether it was forcing deflections to start easy mismatches in transition, or even setting up Devin Booker on a beautiful cut to the rim, Bridges showed the efficient, all-around package we saw plenty of at Villanova.
No surprise, once Bridges went out for an extended stretch, Denver widened their lead even further behind Nikola Jokic’s dominance. Head coach Igor Kokoskov didn’t put Bridges back in the game until near the end of the third quarter when their deficit was already back up above 15.
Well, Bridges certainly made his presence felt again in mere moments, as he hit back-to-back three-pointers. And after helping cut the Nuggets’ lead down in the second half, Bridges began the fourth quarter with Isaiah Canaan, Josh Jackson, T.J. Warren, and Ayton.
Right away, Bridges forced another Denver turnover with his 7’2” wingspan, baiting Jamal Murray into a traveling violation after he realized he had nowhere to go.
Unfortunately, Bridges’ role as an energizer faded once Kokoskov subbed him out for Booker, but the message was already sent to the coaching staff. The Suns’ 22-year-old, three-and-D wing was their second best player on the floor going up against one of the Western Conference’s most underrated rosters with limited run.
Right away, Bridges should fill a role between now and December where he’s playing at least 15 minutes per game. His two-way value is huge for the Suns, who desperately need to have consistent shooters and defenders flanking Booker and Ayton. Also, Bridges showed how he can be compatible playing alongside Jackson and Warren on Saturday night in the second unit.
Within the next six weeks, though, I expect those minute totals to continuously rise. Whether it’s Ryan Anderson seeing no more than 20-22 minutes, or taking Troy Daniels and Jamal Crawford completely out of the rotation, some corresponding move needs to be made in order for Bridges to get consistent playing time. The No. 10 pick proved himself under Jay Wright in college, but he’s already showcasing on the professional level as a legitimate talent.
Trying to map out a possible eight to 10-man rotation for Kokoskov from here on out, here’s what I believe is the best-case scenario for the short term:
Starters - Canaan (27), Booker (36), Ariza (30), Anderson (22), Ayton (34)
Second Unit - Booker (36), Jackson (22), Bridges (22), Warren (25), Chandler/Anderson (11)
Outside of Canaan, no other point guard seems ready to fill big minutes. That leaves plenty of Point Book opportunities for the Suns’ star while logging the highest minutes. Meanwhile, it’s setting up for Anderson to be the one whose slowly usurped in the rotation for Bridges and the sudden three-point marksmen nicknamed Tony Buckets (shooting 55.6% on super-small sample size at 5/9).
Eventually, we could see the Suns close games out with Booker, Jackson, Bridges, Ariza, and Ayton. That was my prediction before the season began, and I think Kokoskov will realize soon those are his five best players to try to go win a game.
This also takes Daniels and Crawford out of the rotation, which is how it should be unless Crawford earns spot minutes from Canaan and Booker as a primary facilitator off the bench. We also can’t rule out an eventual trade for a point guard.
On the floor, Phoenix needs consistent shooting and defensive versatility. Out of the 10 players mentioned above, Anderson is definitely the weakest link, especially when he’s not connecting on three-pointers consistently. In his place, Bridges, who can definitely fill stretch-4 minutes with his length and shooting prowess, provides the glue holding the lineup together. And if he turns out to be a better passer within Kokoskov’s offense than we saw under Wright’s scheme in college, he’s definitely going to turn some heads early on during his rookie season.
Ironically enough, Anderson was moved to the bench after only 22 games during Anthony Davis’ rookie campaign in New Orleans. The same could be in store for Anderson, allowing ample playing time for their wing trio of Warren, Jackson and Bridges.
Sure, it’s only 15 minutes, but Bridges proved quickly why Kokoskov needs to tweak his rotation to fit him in. Consistent, two-way impact hasn’t been found on the Suns’ roster in awhile, but Bridges could be providing it in spades over the full season.