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Thunder coach: Mikal Bridges is going to be a “really, really good player”

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The Phoenix Suns have another rookie who might have the biggest impact on winning now and in the future.

NBA: San Antonio Spurs at Phoenix Suns Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

After the Oklahoma City Thunder beat the Suns for the third time in the last two weeks, all without Russell Westbrook, head coach Billy Donovan threw a much-needed olive branch to Suns fans.

“They’re playing really, really physical on defense,” Donovan said. “They’re active, they’re long. Bridges is going to be a really, really good player. He really works defensively.”

On Saturday night, Mikal Bridges had four steals and two blocks — along with six fouls — as the primary defender of Paul George, who’s been playing like the best small forward in the game early this season.

The 22-year old rookie with nicknames like “Praying Mantis”, “Noodles” and “Go Go Gadget” for his freakishly long arms and spindly body, could have a career that compared to a rich man’s Robert Covington if he continues to evolve.

Donovan was being kind about the Suns overall. The Suns (3-12, last in the West by four games) are 28th in the league on defense for the season, giving up 112 points per 100 possessions (roughly, a game worth of possessions).

But the insertion of Mikal Bridges in the starting lineup these last two games has led to an improvement in that area. Against the Spurs and Thunder, who are a combined 17-12 this season, the Suns defense gave up just 102 points per 100 possessions, a full 10 points better than their average in the 13 games prior.

Offensively, Bridges has been good as well. He’s making 37 percent of his threes on the season and, even better, has been shooting without hesitation on the catch when he knows it’s time to shoot. The Suns need his decisiveness and smooth aggression. Bridges scored 14 points on Saturday, including 3/5 shooting on threes and a key drive and score in the paint when the game was in the balance.

The absence of Trevor Ariza these last two games has been a window through which Bridges has exploded. While Ariza hasn’t been bad, he somehow has been one of the Suns worst “plus-minus” players. No matter what lineup he’s been in, his team has been getting blown out. Bridges has been the opposite, having the most positive effect on the scoreboard when he’s in. That’s unusual for a rookie.

“He knows how to win,” shooting guard turned point guard Devin Booker said recently, referring to Bridges’ college experience at Villanova winning two NCAA Championships in the last three years, including this past spring.

Bridges has also supplanted second-year whirling dervish Josh Jackson on the trust-meter, even before Trevor Ariza missed a few games with personal/family issues. Now, it’s possible that Ariza won’t get his starting position back either. Or if he does, he won’t necessarily get more playing time than Bridges anyway.

It will be interesting to see how playing time evolves this season between Bridges, Ariza and Jackson at small forward. While Bridges and Jackson can also play shooting guard, there’s a certain someone who takes all but 12 of those minutes a night.

Ariza was signed to a one-year, $15 million deal this past summer, so the logjam won’t be too long in the making. Ariza cannot be traded until at least December 15, though it’s unlikely the Suns would pull the trigger on a trade much prior to the trade deadline in February, while they wait to extract the highest possible return for Ariza.

By next year, Bridges, Jackson and Booker might be one of the more lethal wing groups in the NBA, with 3J Warren likely spending most of the rest of his Suns career at the power forward position. If the Suns acquire a true power forward at some point, pushing Warren back to his more natural small forward position, then one of Jackson or Bridges would be squeezed for minutes. But let’s cross that bridge when/if that happens.

For now, enjoy watching Mikal Bridges defy rookie-dom, and start hoping he can make the Rising Stars challenge with teammate Deandre Ayton in February.