Having not seen Mikal Bridges during the first quarter of Sunday’s game against the Memphis Grizzlies, it seemed like we would be robbed again of watching the rookie play meaningful minutes.
But a quarter of the way through the second half, Bridges checked in with six minutes left in the third. Usually, Bridges would come in at this point and then be subbed out by either Devin Booker or Trevor Ariza a few minutes later.
No, not this time, with the Suns trailing, 71-63.
Head coach Igor Kokoskov stuck with the rookie wing as he proved, possession after possession, how valuable he is as a main cog in Phoenix’s system. The team even trailed by 12 later on, but Bridges’ tenacious on-ball defense disrupting passing lanes and hot hand from outside was the spark they needed to pull off their second victory of the season.
23 of the Suns’ 25 points in the final stanza came from Booker (14) and Bridges (9). Both were feeding off each other late, with Bridges looking to lock up players while Booker himself played splendid defense after he picked up his fifth foul. Booker also assisted on all three of Bridges three-pointers to help close out Memphis on a 23-9 run.
“A lot of things that Mikal is doing for us you can’t put in the stats,” Kokoskov said. “When he makes shots it’s obvious, but he’s a very reliable player. He’s very solid and very mature for his age. Not just when it comes to the game plan and execution, but overall, when it comes to the professionalism and everything else.”
Kokoskov has been consistent playing a nine-man rotation, and Bridges far and away has been their statistical stud, based on multiple advanced metrics. Bridges is the only player on the Suns’ roster who carries a positive net rating (plus-6), and Booker comes in second-place at minus-5.7.
The Suns’ No. 10 overall pick is also producing when Kokoskov goes his way, each and every time. If you stretch Bridges’ numbers out per 36 minutes, he’s showing exactly why he was seen by many as one of the most NBA-ready prospects available. Only Kawhi Leonard joins Bridges as players so far this season — of course, a small sample size of games, but I still find it noteworthy — as players who have averaged at least 15 points and 2.5 steals per 36 while shooting 50 percent or better from the floor and 40-plus percent on three-pointers.
Bridges is always making smart plays, too. Whether it’s sealing off someone in the paint or making the extra pass, it’s rare you see Bridges make mental errors. Once Mike Conley scored on him to tie the game up before Booker hit his own, Bridges visibly let out a yell of frustration. You can tell he takes pride in being a great defender, and it’s helped plenty with his innate instinct of picking off passing lanes using an eye-popping 7’2” wingspan.
“I mean, it felt good. I was happy to be out there helping my team try to win,” Bridges said of receiving closing minutes. “That’s the only thing I really care about when I’m out there. Trying to win, play as hard as I can. Happy we got the W.”
Booker took notice of Bridges’ performance — he was openly gushing about him in the locker room afterwards. Just like Bridges showed at Villanova for four years under Jay Wright, his habits tend to lead to winning.
“It’s really big, to be playing crunch-time minutes like that your rookie season and performing, it’s really special,” Booker said. “I was saying it postgame, I love being on the floor with him. He does everything it takes to win. He spaces the floor, he defends, he’s long and lanky and has really good instincts that not a lot of other people have. He was well-coached at Villanova and they know how to win.”
Even though it was only one breakout game so far, the cat has been let out of the bag on how good Bridges could be. Alongside Booker and Ayton, who could quickly turn into one of the most dynamic inside-out duos scoring-wise in short order, Bridges is the glue that could hold it together with his unique 3-and-D package. And he’s not a fully developed player yet either, whose playmaking skills are already starting to bloom within Kokoskov’s offense.
In four of Bridges’ last five appearances, he’s played over 20 minutes. I expect that number to continuously rise as the season goes on, even when everyone is healthy. Down the line, I believe Bridges will be joining the likes of Booker and Ayton in the starting lineup. Whether it’s moving Trevor Ariza to a contender around the trade deadline or packaging one of T.J. Warren or Josh Jackson for their dire need at point guard, something should happen within the next few months if this play continues from the 22-year-old wing.
During the midst of draft season, I consistently vouched for Bridges as that Swiss army knife who could maneuver right in as a key foundational block in Phoenix. It would require moving some valuable assets, and never did I expect the unprotected 2021 Miami pick to end up being the answer there, but the immediate impact and long term value Bridges provides would be worth it.
Less than three weeks into his rookie season, that breakout finally happened. Bridges is indeed performing like a top-10 pick, and one who has an immensely bright future. As you can tell, I’m driving the Bridges bandwagon. It’s rare you find a blend of above-average leadership, defense and shooting. He showed all of it off plenty on Sunday.
“He’s a young player who we felt comfortable playing crunch time,” Kokoskov said. “We had no doubt that he should be on the court when the game was on the line.”
Moving forward, expect to see a heavy dose of Bridges not only in the fourth quarter, but throughout the 48 minutes of game action. Not only is Kokoskov starting to buy in with Bridges, but so are players like Booker. That goes a long way toward earning your keep in this league.
I’m of the belief Bridges could quickly prove he’s a more capable two-way producer than someone like Otto Porter Jr. or Robert Covington, two 3-and-D wings on consistent playoff teams. Those types of player archetypes are always valuable.
Now, Phoenix has its own lanky, versatile wing who can swing momentum from either side of the court: Mikal Bridges.