By cashing in, trading perhaps their most prized future draft asset, the Phoenix Suns signaled that Villanova forward Mikal Bridges was the piece they believed could improve the team’s fortune.
Bridges joins a team with a dominant scoring guard, a dynamic big man and athletic versatility at every position. In other words, he’s entering a situation similar to the one he thrived in over three seasons with the Wildcats.
“We think in today’s NBA he’s the perfect 3-and-D forward,” general manager Ryan McDonough said of Bridges on draft night.
You could not find a shooter who is a better bet to translate to the NBA game than Bridges. He jacked nearly 250 shots from deep this season, made 44 percent of those looks and was one of the best wing free-throw shooters in the NBA. He can find his shot off motion, from a standstill, wide open or with the defense in his mug. The Suns badly needed shooting, Bridges will bring that if nothing else.
Within new head coach Igor Kokoskov’s offense, player action away from the ball unfurls the offense into motion, at once creating energy and joining together with it. In Utah, it made valuable role players out of NBA question marks like Joe Ingles, Shelvin Mack and Royce O’Neale. Bridges will be hard to keep off the court if he can play smart basketball and knock down open shots, a baseline he’s more than capable of reaching.
Off the ball, Bridges knows how to fill space -- what “open” truly means and how to operate within the freedoms of that expanse. He pops out of a crowded area ready for the ball, confident shooting with the sliver of daylight players can find just by moving.
Play him off the 3-point line -- or even just peep the wrong direction -- and he’s on to the next patch of unpopulated hardwood.
That ability to keep the offense chugging was one very few Suns had last season. After a Devin Booker drive, if the ball kicked into the wrong player’s hands, the possession died.
Bridges’ entry into this roster, and the transplantation of Kokoskov’s offense onto it, bring interesting problems to be solved. Most of all, can moving the ball satisfy a team full of hungry, young scorers?
Booker, Josh Jackson and Deandre Ayton all have to factor into the offensive equation, as does microwave scorer T.J. Warren, now with a competition for playing time foisted upon him.
We haven’t even mentioned the other guard spot, whether filled by Brandon Knight, Elie Okobo or one of the other half-dozen names in play to fill the bench.
“When you win a championship, you sacrifice a lot,” Bridges noted in a pre-draft interview with Sports Illustrated. “You never know unless you’ve been through it.”
During the junior season that brought Bridges his second championship, he was just behind teammate (and Dallas Mavericks second-rounder) Jalen Brunson in terms of raw points scored, but from an efficiency standpoint was the biggest scorer on his team. He was a valuable offensive star despite being known for his long arms and smothering team defense.
A lot of what made him effective as more than a stand-and-shoot cog was his intelligence when the offense broke down. Coach Jay Wright runs a system which starts downhill and pings outward, then around, until a clear shot appears. When that didn’t happen, Bridges problem-solved.
Notice in the second clip above how his physical gifts work in a pinch to gain an advantage. Bridges brings that superior body to the NBA, with few wings able to match his 6-7 frame or crazy wingspan (Bridges bypassed the NBA Draft Combine, so we don’t know that number for sure).
On draft night, Bridges described himself as a player who will take a lot of pride in defense, play with energy and “do anything that the team needs me to do.”
That Bridges is also a cerebral enough player to see that play also helps his odds to improve long-term and fit with Kokokoskov in the shorter term. Every player must pass, shoot and move for the new coach.
Bridges’s size also allows him to battle into position without sacrificing his ability to make plays over the top of the defense. Because of their unique ability to finish plays from all three levels, he and Jackson should be on the court together as much as possible.
Of course, length is a quality whose impact we typically associate with the defensive end. Many guys tried and failed to score against Bridges during his three college seasons. Bridges earned pre-draft comparisons to Trevor Ariza and Shane Battier for a reason, and could have a similar impact on team defense at his peak.
Without generational athleticism or unreal strength, it’s difficult to project Bridges as one of the very best defenders in the NBA considering the direction of the league’s best teams. He’s also entering his age-22 season, meaning improvement may not be as explosive as for some rookies.
But the outline of a monster defender gets colored in darker each time you watch Bridges play.
Again, Jackson’s outlandish defensive potential is now approached, if not matched, by that of his new teammate. Rather than creating a competition, the Suns can find out how opponents handle it all at once.
That’s the philosophy the Suns should be employing with Bridges part of their plans next year -- see how it looks, all at once. In need of a talent overhaul, the Suns added three good prospects on draft night. Bridges was the one they went out and got, and he’s the one that will make everything more flexible.
It has to work.